The Joy of Joe


It’s been said that a mob movie without Joe Pesci is like Christmas without Santa Claus. In one of those nice churns of a metaphor, last Christmas I discovered a little Yuletide recording by Pesci, a very special cover of ‘If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas.’  There are some sample lyrics below, but really, on the page they do little justice; the pleasure, as especially with Pesci, is all in the delivery. Do yourself a favour!

Santa’s just as nice as he could be

There’s just one fuckin thing that worries me:

If it doesn’t snow on Christmas

How’s fatass use that sleigh?

I love the bit just before the fade where he riffs with the children after their chorus. Aye, nice kids. Where the fuck you get em from, a jail?   Oh, Joe Pesci. What a beautiful animal you are.

One of the greatest people I know used to see a shrink; a proper psychoanalyst. In the naughties. Rare, no? Anyway, after years of talking to the wall that faced his sofa, she decided to see a different kind of therapist. Maybe a CBT type? You know the type. ‘Imagine your anger as a tangible character.’ ‘A character?’ ‘Yeah, something you can relate to, but also a flat character. A caricature, if you will.’ My friend subsequently began to imagine her anger as Donald Duck and, lo and behold, her elevated contempt for humanity descended to a manageable level.

What is it, to smile at our own rage?

I think the thought experiment worked because Donald Duck is allowed to get angry. Perhaps that’s why so many children, deep  in their uncorrupt hearts, prefer him to his more iconic counterpart because, unlike Mickey, Donald actually expresses himself. Perhaps the price for this permission is his incomprehensibility – that cacophony of quacks as he stomps on his sailor’s hat. Despite, or perhaps because of his unintelligibility, Donald successfully registers injustice, humiliation, rejection, resentment: all writ large, in technicolor. An animated foreign correspondent, his tantrums transmit news direct from the frontline. The frontline of Disneyland. You know it kids: you don’t really get what you want. No one is listening. Shit isn’t fair. Yep, life blows. 

Ever watch a child’s eyes when you’re bullshitting them? The glazing, the cloud of disappointment that blows over as they watch you? It’s something shameful. Kids long for the truth, maybe even more than Disneyland.

I took my child to Japan the other day. We actually went to Tokyo Disney, and I was surprised by the fact that after a couple of hours of rides and caramel popcorn I really wanted to stay, and he, a newly minted six year old (it was the day of his birthday), asked to go back to the apartment. Anyway, during our stay in Japan we spent a lot of time with a very sweaty, very sweary, and a very brutally honest young man, who, as an aside, joked (sort of) about founding a support group for people that can’t help speak their mind. Assholes Anonymous.

My son has always loved him, but the platonic crush deepened over the holiday. Sample conversation starter: ‘Hey,’ pressing him into a vending machine at Koenji station. ‘Will you say the F-word. Please?’ It’s quite possible that this exact phrasing has never been formulated in the history of the English language. Say the f-word, please?

As unprecedented, or at least, unusual as this formulation may sound, isn’t it really what we are all saying when our faces light up at the sight of Joe Pesci losing his shit on Scorsese’s mob flicks? I just watched Casino, in which he squeezes a troublesome mick’s head in a vice until his eyeball bursts. The mick finally gives up the name of the protected person in question. CHARLIE M? YOU MADE ME POP YOUR FUCKIN EYE OUT FOR CHARLIE M?! Nobody does it better. Pesci is my Donald Duck. Say the f-word, Pesci. Please?

Prefix ex-, suffix -gate


There are many things we don’t know; here is one of them. Why did my ex-, the father of my son, drive his 4WD through the security gates of my house only to stop just short of the living room window, abandoning the car to leg it for god knows where?

I found a most peculiar carnage when I returned home after a morning of errands. The black electronic gates dangled in the air from split hinges, and my neighbour’s wall was smashed, a mess of flaking white paint and dusty weatherboard. Broken mirror sparkled against splinters of plastic along the length of the drive. And at the end of the drive sat that square Ford Maverick, which hadn’t had a right to be parked there for about three years. If I’d had any semblance of cool at the time, I would have remarked to another witness that I didn’t know what I was looking at.

I know very little and fear very much. Think of fear as a front-loading washing machine, with its little mechanism that prohibits the opening of the door until all of the cycles have completed. The panic cycle saw me call my son’s school straight after I called the police. Had his dad picked him up early? He hadn’t been picked up? He was still in class? I broke down in grateful, wasteful sobs on my neighbour’s fence, waiting with my friend for the police to arrive. Don’t go in there, they had said. The apologetic and ashamed cycle was next as I told my ex’s dad I was sorry. He was sitting on the couch, looking grey, red and sensible, a sad Santa Claus, or perhaps, Colonel Sanders, after being interviewed by the police. He was always a good boy. There was the hyper-alert cycle, during which I had to change all the alerts on my phone because the old ones made my hands shake whenever I received a phone call or text message. I would double-take every time I saw a white male, approximately 5 ft 8, in any public place. I would lock the doors from the inside of the car whenever I drove anywhere. I don’t know why I’m using the past tense, I am still double-taking and door-locking.

But what is a washing machine used for? asked another friend, on hearing my analogy. Not, what is it like to be in there? I had to take the point that there was no point in thinking about what it’s like being in there, that thudding, accelerating fear machine. Don’t you come out of a washing machine better? Or at least, cleaner? Isn’t that what your metaphor is about? 

Have I been cleansed? What has been atoned?

It’s amazing how facile the binary becomes. Suddenly it’s an unequivocal situation. He’s the aggressor, the respondent. I’m the victim, the protected person.

It’s very strange. I am not the nicest person. I am no weakling. I don’t say this emptily: I have been cruel, duplicitous, manipulative to others, and in the past, to him. Somehow this is no longer so? I have an official document that describes me as a ‘protected person.’ And so now, the old question is officially taboo, impossible: what did she do to provoke him? I am the protected person. I have been cleansed.

Yeah, I was in the washing machine for a while. A proper housewife’s cycle. Matters weren’t much improved by the fact that I’d returned to the city of Perth; sadly for me not even the ‘City of Perth,’ but the far-flung outskirts across the City of Cockburn, the parched family seat. I had in fact extended my stay as Melbourne was considered unsafe. The police looked for Simon (for that is his name), arrested him, but were unable to interview him about the incident, for reasons still unknown to me. He was taken to the psychiatric ward of the aptly named Northern Hospital for an assessment and then released the next day, also for reasons unknown to me.

I hear there is to be a Royal Commission on the effectiveness of Intervention Orders in the coming months. I wonder how many women will say they felt less safe after their order was activated. Simon tried to contact me once while I was in Perth. I freaked out and called the police to report what I’d been told would be breach of the order, only to be informed that the order hadn’t yet been served.

Let me see, said the young constable, easy-breezy on the line. The kind of seconds that elapse while someone searches for and opens a file on a computer elapsed. The order is not in effect. You see, it has to be served in order to be in effect. Why wouldn’t it be in effect? Hadn’t Simon been to court? I felt stupid for not understanding. And then I felt stupid for somehow trusting an administered system.

Many inconvenient, unpleasant surprises lay in store for me during the holiday period. I don’t mean to detail them all here, or anywhere else. In fact I mean to forget nearly everything.

But I do want to remember the moment I felt like the washing machine was nearing the final cycle. Do you know that decelerating sound? The pitched-down phase began the morning I woke up, still in Perth, and scratched a new mosquito bite. The benzo-clouds parted for a moment, and I giggled. There was a new word. Not a high impact word, more of a creeper. But there it was. I smiled again. Simongate. Why had it taken me so long to name the situation? And what a lovely name for it.

There’s a sketch in the loveable sketch-comedy show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, where the two actors play ‘themselves’ in a caught-between-scenes scenario. David Mitchell plays Mitchell in downtime, relaxing with a newspaper in a director’s chair.

M: ‘I was just going to say that my eye was caught by this whole scandal in America!’

W: ‘Ooooh, the scandal in America. Yeah, that is interesting. That must be the biggest scandal since Watergategate.’

M: ‘Isn’t it just Watergate?’

W: ‘No. That would mean it was just about water. No, it was a scandal, or ‘-gate’ (that’s what you do with a scandal, add the suffix ‘gate’) at the Watergate Hotel. So it’s the Watergate Scandal or Watergategate.’

Simongate. I sent my best friend, who now lives in Japan, a short message about this neologism by email. The event now had a name. Naming something steals power from it. It is a small power, to be sure, the most minor increment up from pretty abject powerlessness, but still, this had something. Precious little for all the pressure it was up against. A lame joke. A transposition of a grammatically contentious suffix that felicitously reverted to the literal. I spoke with the same friend by phone later that day. I told him that this joke was the first time I’d felt really normal since the day it happened.

You don’t really seem so into my new term, I teased him. Yeah, not bad. The old adding the -gate suffix to something bad or scandalous. Ah, you don’t get it. Don’t you see, he literally drove through the gates. Simon smashed the gate. Simongate.

He trilled like a girl, or a drag queen. What a laugh. Oh right! 

Before the washing machine some other bad stuff had already started to happen. I crashed my car. I left my favourite hat on a tram. I smashed my phone. My boyfriend told me he ‘didn’t know’ if he wanted to be in the relationship anymore. (He did know: he didn’t want to.) Looking back now the thing I mourn most is that hat. God we had some good times together. How many bodies of water, in how many cities and towns? The kind of brown that goes with everything. The kind of hat that will get in chlorine, then crumple in your bag for a few days, then still come out smooth for the next road trip or non-straight wedding. An everyday hat for any special occasion.

Anyway, before any of that stuff even happened, before summer, even, I’d been taking all these notes for an article I’d felt compelled to write. It had not been solicited and I hadn’t sought publication for it. Yet I worked on it daily, compelled, unusually for me, to comment on a culturally relevant topic. Something about the link between first-world born jihadi entering Syria in droves to join ISIS and boredom. A partial view on boredom and violence. I’d planned on making the obligatory visit to Perth over summer an opportunity to experience the local boredom, hoping to draw from a well-spring of memories there of a hopelessly boring childhood. Or what I wish to remember as one.

Due to the events of Simongate, which transpired on the day before the flight out to Perth, these research aims were entirely disappointed. I was never bored. I was scared, tired, anxious, occasionally even manically happy (flipping pancakes on Christmas Day). Even along that eminently doomed stretch, Scarborough Beach Road, passing Glendalough Station, my hands shook on the steering wheel, under the magnificent heat of the windshield and that relentless blue sky. An extended stay in Perth. Bleaker words are seldom spoken.

I ask myself all kinds of questions now, in the confused calm of late January. What if all I achieved in this life was being thin? What is the difference between ‘violence against women’ and ‘violence’? How do suburban jihadi from Western Sydney fill their time on the long flight to the Northern Hemisphere? Do they watch the in-flight movie? Which movie?

The friend who elucidated the washing machine analogy also said this in response to the Charlie Hebdo story. What if everyone just stopped talking about terrorism? I mean, completely stopped?

The Clouds

the clouds

On my way home from the library this morning I had a psychic radio moment, where a spontaneous thought was immediately followed by a song that exactly summed up the thought, so much so that it should have come before the thought and indeed, produced it. Put simply, apropos of nothing I thought of a man. And then I changed the radio station. And then his favourite song came on. I turned up the radio and thought about the band (INXS), glancing off the thought that the past must be a pretty powerful aphrodisiac if it can make me wonder what that particular Raskolnikov is doing right now. Sorry, Raskolnikov! I’m sure you’re not complaining as much these days. I hope the weed is mellow, and the dumpster food varied and plentiful, wherever you are!

I turned off the street and remembered that no one can really claim a special relationship to that band, especially not that song. It’s one of those universal situations. So special that it’s nothing special. ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ is good in the same way, I don’t know, the light off the moon is good. I mean, we can talk about these things, but where will that take us other than more surface appreciation? Of course the point is that in the surface lies the chiming beauty; forget about deep connection. I mean, by all means, let’s talk, but let’s not expect too much from our talk. Our talk about INXS. I’ll make wine from your tears.

Speaking of chiming beauty, I saw the Clouds the other day. Now that’s a band you’ll never hear on the radio. As I stood to stage left at the Corner, predictably stuck behind one of those stupid wide pillars, sipping a beer that tasted like carpet, it struck me that my thinking had been all wrong. My thinking had been this (and this is probably just what I’ve often told people): the Clouds are one of those bands that probably would have been really big if the festival circuit had been as developed back then as it would later become. Interesting, catchy pop songs, genuinely independent girls, tough hard playing, heartbeating, Australian belters. But as I stood there at the show, a scary couple of decades later, the fans all seeming like they had babysitters and desk jobs at NGOs, I realised: it’s actually very strange that this band ever got as big as they were. Oh, and if the tone of this post seems mean, that’s because I’m probably just jealous of people with babysitters and desks at NGOs.

The Clouds have a very distinctive sound: lots of dissonances based around 4ths, which seem borrowed from medieval and early modern music. Lots of breakdowns into 6/8 or 3/4 time. Very tight arrangements based around weirdo chord changes. A shitload of attitude. ‘The right attitude‘ quipped my friend, whose cousin, Raph, is the Clouds’ drummer, smiling his way through blissed-out fills. I remember seeing them at an all-ages show at the Fly by Night in Fremantle, Jodi and Trish swinging their guitar and bass like giant schlongs, so dapper and swagger without being butch, somehow virile rather than sexy. Very musical without being nerdy, or showy. ‘Pure,’ said Raph’s cousin.

There’s something very honest about guitar music. Especially when no one’s shy. ‘It’s nice to hear women sing properly,’ I commented to Raph’s cousin. She told me that Trish’s mum was this great country singer and suddenly the storytelling aspect, the narratorial character of songs like ‘4pm’ made sense.

I’m a bitter, twisted soul
With my hand behind my back
I feel my shiny silver blade
Love on my right hand
Hate on my left hand
God at my command
But they don’t understand

The two sets the Clouds played the other day were immaculate, album-perfect. And the only reason this matters is because through this virtual copy of the past (and incidentally, Jodi looks exactly as she looked when I saw her play in 1996) I was able to transition from nostalgia to time travel. It was like breaking a physical law, or a universal taboo. After intermission I passed a middle-aged couple engaged in an ersatz waltz; I presume they’d seen the band when they met in their uni years, a story like that hovered around them as they smiled into each other’s long grey hair. They were remembering hearing it all the first time, while hearing it exactly as it was the first time. ‘This shouldn’t be allowed’ I thought to myself. Memory is obscene. It should remain private, obscured. As I stood there during the sets, refusing to finish my Carlton draught, the waves of pleasure I felt during certain chord changes and bridge distortion reminded me that I was no different from this waltzing couple, forgetting the horizon to wallow in the shallows of memory.

Post script: Neither Raph’s cousin nor I could remember the fourth person on stage that night, a tall man shredding away between Jodi and Trish whom they called Dave. Dave? Who the fuck was Dave? The lovely thing about memory is that it omits what’s not necessary. And the trouble with time travel is that it’s too accurate.

Watching Shelley Duvall


From the backseat of a two-door, four-seat Ford Fiesta (or was it a Festiva?), I listened to the talk of my fellow travellers. They were chatting in that loose, unstructured way of happy friends who have spent some continuous time together. ‘Hey Crumbs, you know what you wanna read? You wanna read Moby Dick.’ ‘Nah, man, I tried to read that about a year ago.’ ‘Not for you?’ The car was parked on the Stradbroke Island ferry; facing the island, we were on the return trip, travelling backwards towards the mainland. The atmosphere was sleepy after three days of beach. On the first day we’d seen humpback whales breaching and dolphins surfing along the island’s eastern coast. I closed my eyes. The recommender was explaining why he loved Moby Dick, or rather, why it was good. ‘It’s not for any literary reason…’ I opened my eyes. The sky was overcast, a bit sharky. Two of the holidaymakers were scientists, and I wondered how an analogous statement might sound. ‘Yeah, I think childhood vaccination is good. But not for any scientific reason.’ But no, this is a stupid analogy. And besides, I myself nearly always like books ‘not for any literary reason.’ I’m not certain that my studies, and rather obscure career, have ever provided any particular reason for why I’ve thought or done anything to do with books. More telling than that comment was the tacit response to it in the car, the lack of any kind of request for further explanation illustrating an acceptance that the speaker of course, naturally, should not recourse to ‘literary reasons’ to justify taste or interest. Naturally: the position is a given. If the study of literature doesn’t provide any reason, if the sense of its irrelevance is general, pervasive and monumentally casual, what is the point of the discipline? Is there any service the discipline supports other than pointless mental exile, which I briefly acknowledged in the reflection of the window of the Festiva (or Fiesta)?

I read somewhere that Shelley Duvall (3 Women, The Shining) had wanted to be a scientist; that growing up her hero was Marie Curie. I read that she never trained as an actress, and that Robert Altman, who discovered her in Texas, instructed her to simply be herself, or not take herself too seriously, to just be in the moment, something like that, in front of the camera. No theory. Be in the moment. Whenever I see her movies two things strike me. First: she’s a star-maker’s star. Like John Cazale, she’s a weird combination of inimitable and forgettable, a freak that flies under the radar. Playing one-on-one against Sissy Spacek or Jack Nicholson, she provides this deeply charged space for her co-star to deliver the god-like performance. Her psychic generosity is immense. Second: watching her is a physical ordeal. I think there’s something really sick about my fascination with on-screen thinness, and worst of all, I suspect I am in the majority regarding this cultural spectacle. There’s something about extreme thinness that is visually hypnotic, like a puzzle we can’t figure out. How can that be a body? A woman’s body? Something like that. I’m also enthralled by Duvall’s hysteria, her hyper-domesticity (think of those wonderful recipes she catalogued as Milly in 3 Women); these excessive identities are utterly linked in my mind to the visual cue of her spectacular thinness.

Maybe this seems like so much posturing. But there’s a fabulous protest embodied by Shelley Duvall that gets me every time. She’s the ultimate weakling, a tearful, high-pitched loser, famously bullied on set by Kubrick and Nicholson. I read that she cried for a year and a half while shooting The Shining. She’s anti-strong; everything she represents is against the idea of the strong woman. Against, and perhaps a protest. But what’s wrong with the strong woman? What could be more feminist, more equal, than a tough, resilient female role model? It’s what we always hear: there aren’t enough strong women in cultural representations (film, music, political offices). There aren’t enough strong role models. The ideal strong woman is a warrior: she goes to war and fires an arrow just like she goes to work and fires the arsehole. That’s how strong she is. And that’s great, I suppose, if you’re telling a story in the heroic era. But I reckon the strong woman is a big fat lie. Rather than standing for modern ‘equal rights’ as such, the strong woman is a flat character consistent with the pre-modern imagination. She doesn’t really doubt, or wonder, or wander in the twin realms of inertia or overexcitement. She doesn’t have the psychology to pretend to be something she’s not. Where is her personhood, her round character? Where is her insecurity, her metaphysical angst? Where is her damage, the thing that makes her interesting? I like Duvall because her hysteria, her thinness, her spectacular self-effacement are brilliantly anti-heroic. A brittle emblem of anti-strength, she embodies trauma and crisis and bad faith and alienation and everything else modern. ‘Hi Tom,’ says Milly as she passes her neighbour’s pool party. She receives no response. She’s been saying it all movie. She continues past the group and takes a lounge by the pool. It’s night-time. She reads a magazine. She waits for someone to talk to her. She’s hard to watch, and she makes everything interesting.

The Pop Metaphor: Part 2



The paradoxical entrapment in an accelerating metaphor is no better expressed than in the lyrics of the heavy-hitting hit-maker, Sia.


I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose

Fire away, fire away

Ricochet, you take your aim

Fire away, fire away

You shoot me down but I won’t fall

I am titanium

You shoot me down but I won’t fall

I am titanium


I wonder what it feels like to make art that doesn’t drift off-point. Contemporary pop is not a flaneur form – I feel like the people that either create or consume pop would like to think of themselves as diligent, hard workers. People you can count on to get the job done. Of course, successful singer-songwriters like Sia are not just workhorses. They’re also, and mainly, incredibly gifted, and there’s a lovely predestined aspect to Sia’s songs that make the lyrical choices seem obvious, nearly facile; it’s as if the songs have always existed. There’s making it look easy, and there’s making it look like you didn’t even do anything at all – the sprezzatura ease that comes to very few. True knack for metaphor – abstraction with clarity and reach – is incredibly rare.


‘Titanium’ exemplifies the privileged place that themes of resilience and survival take in contemporary pop songs. Why do metaphors to do with survival resonate with the collective consciousness? What are we surviving? Survival itself (and the scene of destruction the word implies) is not a trope unique to our times (see ‘I Will Survive’) but it’s certainly a trope that dominates current music that arguably no other trope does. From the media judo of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor’ (written in response to a journalist’s likening of the ever-changing membership of the pop outfit to an episode of Survivor) to recent number ones including ‘Titanium,’ ‘Roar’ and ‘Chandelier,’ survival has grown to occupy much space in the global soundscape. Everywhere: a sonic stamp of aural affirmation. In spite of everything, we are going to make it through this slog. But what is this slog? What is the vague, unmentioned force, which is apparently putting us all through hell? Often, because the conveyers of the message of survival are generally women, female audience members seem emboldened by the music, to take away something in the spirit of personal and sisterly empowerment.


I sometimes feel pop’s a little bit like opera, where the soprano always dies. Pop is a little like how Marilyn Monroe must die. She kind of did have to – I can’t really think of how else her story could have ended. As much as her death is the height of something truly awful, as much as it saddens me to think of, – well, that’s narrative logic. The beautiful soprano, the magical starlet, the female icon can’t survive the narrative. To die beautifully in Puccini is to have succeeded . If you are Mimi or Ciocio-san, you have achieved the height of beauty – and at the height of this beauty you face and embrace ultimate destruction. Is feminine destruction the ultimate patriarchal success story? What’s so awful about being in a success story? Laterally, in pop young women are constantly renewed – the older stars blow out in Vegas, the younger ones morph out of Disney confection – fixing a blurred, eternal image of fecundity and desire somehow emptied of any specific icon.


What does pop music’s voicing of survival have to do with this narrative of destruction? Telling the world ‘I’m a survivor,’ or ‘you’re gonna hear me roar,’ or ‘you shoot me down, but I won’t fall,’ certainly draws attention to a plight. These women are under attack. Really! Listen to them! You don’t even need to listen to the words – listen to the music. The rhythm splits into smaller and smaller subdivisions. Filter sweeps. Pumping synths. Forceful kick drums. Compressed vocals. No human stands a chance. I have no trouble being convinced that this music, while not quite a cry for help, is absolutely a drawing attention to a scene of destruction. An Act 3 scene – the woman is on the edge. I’m not sure that the announcement of triumph in ‘I got the eye of the tiger’ should be taken at literally. Well, of course I don’t mean literally literally – unless Katy Perry gouges feline eyeballs in her free time. But at face value, the representation that these pop figures are actually surviving anything doesn’t convince me.


(The opposite of a crash landing is a smooth take off.)

The Pop Metaphor: Part 1



I think most types of music sound good in cars, but some work better than others. And some excellent genres make no sense in there nearly all the time. Vervy, that time you made me play that gospel house mix as we drove to Northcote Aquatic centre during the day? On a Tuesday? That made no sense. That really sucked.


During my week-long binge of pop I discovered that this kind of music sounds perfect in an automobile. I have a really bass-heavy stereo system in my car. This is not a boon; it’s that crappy bass that makes the car sound like a rattling sunglasses case. Most of the time it’s turned on -2. Maybe all new car stereos are heavy in the bass, attenuated to pop’s soundscape, which like the body of any proper pop star has a big, non-threatening bottom, and always wears a glossy, shimmering top.


Firstly: it’s all very big. Fisher writes about ‘feeling as loud as the music … as though my skin is the only thing that keeps me from going everywhere all at once.’ The passage is unclear, or rather purposely indirect about whether the narrator is describing the effect of the music upon her as she drives, or the peaks of bipolar (one of Fisher’s famous afflictions), or, at a stretch, the affect plateau. The affect plateau is the banal but nonetheless beatific pleasure of everyday happiness. Ecstatic normality – an ecstatic realisation of an unremarkable reality. A woman drives her car. I remember wanting to kiss the dirty ground of Maylands at the tail end of a bad acid trip when I realised, looking at the clouds, that they no longer wanted to kill me. It was sunset. Later, friends would tell me that the problem was that we’d gone day tripping (and sure, maybe day tripping can be too much), but I still think that stuff we’d taken was poison, something not LSD. In any case, I was coming down – an inevitable process that up until then I’d anticipated with sadness because it meant the nice drugs were going away. But from this time I always felt secretly grateful for the come down, even at its most jaw-grinding and psychically brutal. Because a come down is a return to reality. Beautiful, sweet, normal normality. Humble, dear normality. Fragile, contingent, improvised reality. How do we do it, find what we all want to do and feel, agree on it, and proceed?


Is the car designed for pop or is pop designed for the car? Anyone who thinks of the synchrony between the two as modern forgets that this is a site of ghosts and dreams, both of which are profoundly unmodern. This brings me to my second point: big metaphor. To paraphrase Fisher – while listening to pop music in my car it struck me that this is the form for people that want to feel as loud as their music. The production and arrangements of contemporary pop are so expansive that turned up, it’s like your skin is all that keeps you from going everywhere immediately. The arrangements in contemporary pop have become increasingly abstract, as near to contextlessness as anything I can think over. Whatever the watered-down influences were – reggae, hip hop, house, rock, blues – all these referents are buried within their prior invocations, in pre-existing pop of years gone by. The form has truly eaten itself, spewing sonic cues that seem to come only from other pop songs. I listen and just think, this sounds so big, cavernous. Like a new mansion in an outer suburb, this doesn’t seem like anything but its size. All the while the lyrical tropes have become increasingly tight, controlled, and condensed. On one hand the bigness of the sound and metaphor make a grand space, a vast sound-scape for its listener. Arguably this bigness attracts those who otherwise feel small – this might explain the appeal of pop to young girls. On the other hand the lyrical condensation – caught around the one big metaphor – feels constrictive, imprisoned. The single signifier dangles in the rhythmic space (a telephone, a halo, a chandelier, diamonds, titanium) and then gets milked for all its worth. The pop star with her cascading synths is like someone stuck in an out of control elevator, soaring to the highest heights at immense speed. But she is soaring along in a box she can’t leave.


The Pop Metaphor: A Preamble



Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge begins with a crash landing and ends with a – hmmm. What’s the opposite of a crash landing? In the epistolary epilogue Suzanne Vale – a character very closely based on Fisher herself – describes the experience of driving in her car. Thinking back on the novel I realise that Suzanne’s happiest moments occur in that car, top down, music up, driving around LA in a free-motion suspension between origin and destination.


I still don’t think I feel the way I perceive other people to feel. I don’t know if the problem lies in my perception or my comfort. Either way I come out fighting, wrestling with my natures, as it were. Sometimes, though, I’ll be driving, listening to loud music with the day spreading out all over, and I’ll feel something so big and great – a feeling as loud as the music. It’s as though my skin is the only thing that keeps me from going everywhere at once.


Writing to the doctor that pumped her stomach prior to her admission to rehab, the point at which the novel begins, Suzanne continues, ‘If all of this doesn’t tell you exactly what I’m doing, it should tell you how I’m feeling when I’m doing whatever it is.’


A little while ago I spent a week or so listening to a shitload of pop music. There was no one to stop me. It was like being ten years old and home alone. Fuck it, it was like being Kevin in Home Alone, my ears and psyche feasting on nothing but auditory ice cream. Only for the most part I wasn’t in my home, but in my car. Cars are a great place to listen to music. You sit in concentration, with only your responses to driving conditions to distract you from the listening experience. And the responses you need to make distract minimally, being largely automated and intuitive. And – the sensation of listening to music seems to enhance your intuitive faculties while driving. You knew that sedan was going to change lanes. You stayed in second as you approach a red light because you knew it was going to turn green as you entered the intersection. On you go. All the decisions you make are correct. You flow with the collective.


If you’re like me – someone who can’t move their body with much certainty but loves music – the car helps you express, in motion, the way music makes you feel. The car is not only an instrument of pleasure, it is instrumental in the expression of pleasure. The feeling is one of integration. I’m least likely to tell you a lie in my car. The distraction represented by the task of driving is a fairly positive distraction when it comes to listening to music. You must sit still and listen – which helps become and stay in tune. But you are in motion, sailing along with the strings and synths. Also, steering wheels are excellent for tapping along with cowbells. Dance floors would be so much better if they had something for me to tap on.

What We See and What We Seem


Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?


The sublime ‘A Dream Within a Dream,’ by Edgar Allan Poe. I only realised, quite by accident yesterday, how much this meditation on paradox and brevity was influenced by Shakespeare’s allegorical ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle.’ The line length in the latter was uniquely short for Shakespeare; there’s an unexpected echo between the speed and rhythms of the poems when read together. The declarative first lines – ‘Take this kiss upon the brow,’ and ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ – also seem to exist in the same moment of poetic address. Another obvious echo: ‘Is all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream?’ and ‘Truth may seem but cannot be … Truth and beauty buried be.’ The simplicity is so sad and beautiful – a triumphal sadness? What is this peculiar joy in the recognition that nothing can be saved? Is this what memory is?


I have no idea why I didn’t go to the gorge with Vervy before he left. When he asked me about it last night I was uncomfortable, monosyllabic, tired. He then told me a story about a girl he teaches, who recently gave a talk about Japanese archery. She said, ‘The beauty of archery is that you only think about one thing and that one thing is nothing.’ Later, at the end of class, she came up to him to ask what he thought of her new shoes. What a class act.


Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king;
Keep the obsequy so strict.
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak’st
With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
‘Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.
Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;
That it cried, “How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain.”
Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d, in cinders lie.
Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,
And the Turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

The Gail Jones Sigh



One day I’ll die from someone not returning an email. I’m still waiting to hear from the novelist Gail Jones, whom I emailed a week or so ago. I was asked by a small press publication to come up with an established Australian author to profile for the next issue, and I thought of her. I suppose we could say that all Australian writers are individual or unique in their own way; of course they are. But there is a voice, or style that tends to give what we call Australian fiction its identity. We can say there’s a certain laconicism, a stripped-back, unpretentious approach in Australian writing that we see in writers like Tim Winton or Tom Keneally.


Gail Jones is what happens when an Australian writer goes the other way, eschewing the blokey meanderings of her peers in favour of a poised, earnest engagement with – what should I call this? The world of Blanchot, Barthes and Baudrillard: the world of interpretation, critical theory. It feels very 90s to me, but perhaps that’s because I met her in the late 90s, as an undergrad whose heart was set on fire by the French philosophy I was only glossing. I suppose it’s an academic style, self-reflexive, deliberate, clever. It’s a feminine style, a lonely style. She’s the Australian heir to Marguerite Duras and Agnes Varda. I recently showed a friend, an art historian, an excerpt from her second novel, Fetish Lives. My friend sighed: ‘This is so effortful!’ Yes, precisely the point, probably. Gail Jones would find the comment very interesting. ‘I find this very interesting’ was a phrase that was (and might still be) her catchall, her verbal tic.


Jeez, why do I talk as if I knew her? Verbal tics, indeed. I know next to nothing about her! I was once one of her students, taking a number of the literature subjects that she taught. Her areas were modernism and postmodernism, certain areas of cinema. I remember the words ‘hypnogogic’ and ‘paradigmatic’ getting thrown around. I remember ‘epistemophilia’ being scrawled across the whiteboard. ‘Do you know this word?’ she inquired, turning to face the lecture theatre.


There’s probably no way to write this without sounding weird, so I’ll just continue, ignoring the urge to insert disclaimers. A number of female Arts students had little Gail crushes, which, now that I’m teaching at University, I see there is no way she couldn’t have known about. We enrolled in an unnecessary amount of subjects on postmodern writing – which was very much her bag. I have a bad feeling I might have written on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in two totally different units. Mutatis mutandis. There are really huge gaps in my knowledge of English literature as a consequence of this imbalance. It’s my entire fault, of course. No one told me I couldn’t be supplementing my Winterson and Morrison with Chaucer and Spenser on my own clock. No one told us to follow this lecturer around! So why did we?


I might be wrong, but it seems to me that we were uniformly young women. This is not to say that Gail wouldn’t have been attractive to our male peers, but the boys I knew didn’t tend to be effusive. Ask me to picture a young man from 1998 and I see a chalky guy with a closed mouth, dark hair on face and dirty socks on feet – without shoes, listening to blistering techno on a discman in the shadows of a train platform. This kind of person who would tape the windows of their parents’ house in black plastic and trip balls deep in the northern suburbs for 5 consecutive days. Ok, that’s not an aggregate; I’m totally talking about an actual person. Hi, Vervy!


Where was I? Gail was beautiful, no doubt about that, a simple, slim and pale beauty: a piston, a pansy, a rose. She had a particular stance, legs wide apart in a V that seemed incongruous expressed by her small, feminine frame. The stance suggested a cockiness that probably snake-charmed the lot of us. At the same time I’m sure most who meet her would describe her as unassuming. For all the physical attractions, I think the actual attraction at that time was to do with the energy we sensed about her. Thrilling at listening to our own local genius, we struggled to put our response to her into words. She was brilliant! She delivered impeccable interpretations! She was quiet and unimaginably erudite! She wore mesh tops that were slightly out of fashion! She had a word for everything! She was elfin, magic! We thought these things but never said them. We would only sigh, gathering for a cigarette next to the peacocks. ‘Ah, Gail!’ we’d say. Or, for brevity, simply, ‘Gail!’ We delighted in our silliness, as clever girls at that age can tend to. In the same way, there was a not-small degree of pleasure in the public implying of ambiguity in sexual orientation, which only straight girls really bother with.


When I bump into friends from that time, the occasional mention of Gail will bid the same cries of helpless pleasure. ‘Ah, Gail!’ I have met people that studied there after I left and mention of Gail also brings about the same response. Not similar, but the same. ‘Gail!’ the young woman will inevitably say, closing her eyes and churching her hands. What kind of pleasure is this? I think the exact repetition of the Gail Jones sigh, across a decade, between people that didn’t know each other, is instructive. The necessary embodiment and performance of this disciples’ dialect –all of two words for its vocabulary – suggest we were simply interpolated into a Gail crush system. Our reactions, our words, our following her around, were less the result of individual motivation and more the system of desire that we as young women found ourselves placed within.


We were there to learn, but more than this we were there to fall in love with an idea of learning, an idea of ourselves. Perhaps Gail represented a fantasy of complete knowledge, which though it seems crazy now, as a young-young woman, well, this kind of completion is just the ultimate, the nuts. Omniscience seemed to be the superior partner to omnipotence. I’ve used this quote before, and boy does it haunt me. Recall ruined Myrtle in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night: ‘When I was seventeen, I could do anything.’ At seventeen I believed I could know everything. (Secretly, this has never totally disappeared. And many things I do suffer for this conviction.) Somebody coming along, at that liminal age, manifesting all the qualities you inwardly yen for yourself, well, it strikes the first match, doesn’t it? So I think part of the Gail Jones sigh was about a projection into the future – the unlikely but still, here was she, a working-class girl from Harvey! – the dimly possible projection of the ideal, all-knowing, self-assured future self.


She also gave a language and a history to feminine darkness; this too did not dampen attractions. But perhaps it made the men in our midst less likely to pursue her. It was not simply that she ‘gave voice’ to feminine subjectivity, but that by doing so she demonstrated her facility for naming by performing the ultimate – naming the unnameable. I wonder if we felt we had finally been read properly, through a sophisticated vocabulary for otherness, the dark world of bodies.


My best friend, also majoring in English, didn’t buy any of it. She was a year older than me, in second year when I began, and provided a sneering balance to this romantic idealisation of our postmodern teacher. My friend loved Brett Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, Nabakov and genre fiction. She was a much more serious feminist than me, but wasn’t particularly troubled by the dead white males that hung around the canon. I remember her pissing herself over The House of Breathing and Fetish Lives with her older brother, the prose so overcooked they gagged and spat as they read:


What is it, to read? They are paper wings you fly on. They are spaces of mysterious black on white rarefaction … Interiority itself is traduced and shanghaied. Think of it: how strange! What a peculiar absorption.

(‘Eleanor Reads Emma,’ Fetish Lives, 44)


I feel terrible representing this judgement, but the reaction depicts my divided loyalty. Do I go in for story? Or authorial flare? Do I like lucid metanarrative? Do I like a goddam joke once in a while?


Some important things about Gail Jones’ novels. They have no humour. They assume more than a passing acquaintance with critical theory. They’re a little presumptuous, a little purple.


But are these valid criticisms? Do we complain that Adorno doesn’t have enough funnies? The novels are serious, beautiful examinations of the strange worlds we inhabit. What seems verbose to some has always felt, perhaps a little counter-intuitively, to me to be quite honest and straightforward. How else but through fractured poetics to explain the predicaments of modernity?


There had to be in the world of mechanical efficiency some mystery of transaction, the summoning of remote meanings, an extra dimension – supernatural, sure. There had to be a lost sublimity, of something once strange, now familiar, tame.


The lights switched off and passengers seemed instantly to sleep. They had become sluggish, bored. Now they met the extra night with their eyes closed, their heads thrown back, their mouths slackly agape like codfish … in their steel and aluminium tube everyone was insensible. It was as if the plane was governed by alien air or some creaturely intention. A posthumous blue washed over bodies, faces.

(Dream of Speaking, 18-19)


The first plane scene from Dreams of Speaking is a good example of the watchfulness of Jones’ protagonists. They’re voyeurs, flaneurs. I’ve never put my finger on what makes me uncomfortable about these protagonists. While it’s certainly not their watchfulness per se, I think the trouble does stem from something that feels like superiority. Other people are ugly, slack. Love interests are annoying, imperfect. There’s something very judgemental in the narration – an unimpeachable quality that grates after a while (or immediately, as with my friend and her brother).


Yes, the protagonists are too good. That’s fine to say, isn’t it? Our most loved novels brought us gloriously fucked-up protagonists: Emma Bovary, Raskolnikov, Quentin Compson. Not windsurfing, world-beating academics that ponder the telephone in Paris on writing grants.


I was once in love with a painter. Actually, when we were lovers he wasn’t a painter yet. And actually, I didn’t really know I loved him until near the end. On holiday in London we spotted some guy who seemed wildly drunk, one of those crazed types out the front of a Sainsburys. It was July in Islington, a heatwave day – the kind of day when crowds gather for no reason other than to escape unairconditioned buildings. The man wore a football jersey, stained in blood. And the blood was fresh, dripping from a deep crack on his head. The crowd stared in that crowd-staring way: the bystander effect. So did I. The man was shouting, bleeding, when the soon-to-be painter/lover next to me walked nonchalantly into the square in front of Sainsburys and put his arm around the bleeding man. He spoke to him and opened his bottle of water, inviting the man to drink. They sat together. Hospital was discussed; an Oyster card was insistently donated. I truly fell in love with the painter when I saw him holding the bleeding face of the stranger.


Dreams of Speaking is fundamentally different from the rest of Jones’ fiction – moving across the West’s bicameral division of culture, from visual to auditory. Years ago I would have found this exciting – I had once believed I had struck upon an untapped area of our cultural landscape, true source of modernity’s ecstatic connection. Put simply, the thought was: sight isolates, sound incorporates. I used to go in for Attalì, believing that for too long Western culture (and the study of which) had been concerned with the visual at the cost of the auditory. I went on to study orality in twentieth centry poetry, somewhat improbably linking with a study of the radio. Jones’ novel is a study of the telephone. Both are absorbed by the idea of voice, transmitted from a distance. The idea seemed a powerful one to me once. Reading the novel I tested whether it still mattered.


Perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that it didn’t. Dreams of Speaking transmits this strong signal: only the novel is the magical medium.


Recalling my old studies, I’m reminded of the self I have never really shaken. I’m still the girl who misspells the names of theorists. Only the other day I misused the word ‘surmise.’ Despite everything I feel semi-literate most of the time. But, you know, I misspelt ‘Bhabha’ once in a proposal because I had always taken those bloody modernist and postmodern subjects – Gail’s subjects.


One of the great unanswered emails reads like this: ‘Dear Gail, I would like to write an essay about desire. More specifically, the desire to be desired. Could you direct me to any readings? Best, Lucky’


You see, as I now see, that it was of course my desire to be desired. But I was interested, genuinely interested, in what to make of this particularly reflexive, enfolding desire. And while I probably desired to be desired physically – because why the fuck wouldn’t I – the really powerful desire at that time was to be desired intellectually. I wanted to belong to a community of thinkers, and if it was not possible for Perth to muster such a group, then I desired to at least to belong to a community of one more than me. More than equals I desired to be desired by a mentor, to have recognised the brilliance I believed I had somewhere in me, buried by circumstance, contained in thuggish self-doubt.


The second reason Dreams of Speaking is different from the rest, and the only reason this book is special (for me), is the insertion of real-life – refracted, sure, fictionalised, but perhaps closest in feeling to some  vague idea of Gail Jones, growing up in WA, a brilliant class-traitor, the ultimate rebel against the blokey masters of Australian literature.