Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Messenger’s Booker

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is Tony Messenger, from Australia, who blogs at Messenger’s Booker (and more).

Tony’s blog began by looking at Booker Prize shortlisted novels, but has since morphed into “a search for the best writing from the whole planet” and covers a wide range of fiction, essays and poetry.

You can follow him on Twitter @Messy_tony or on Facebook at Messenger’s Booker.

Without further ado, here are Tony’s choices:

2666 by Roberto BolanoA favourite book: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

The answer to this question shifts and it can shift hourly. My favourite book depends upon my mood at the time I’m asked; if I’m grumpy I’d probably answer with something gloomy, brooding and dark – I’ve been reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe recently so he would probably feature. The answer would also depend on the time of year the question was asked. You don’t want to be reading Dante’s Inferno at the peak of Australia’s summer, nor would Jon Kalman Steffansson’s trilogy (Heaven and Hell, The Sorrow of Angels and The Heart of Man) work in the depths of winter – astute readers would note the Dante Divine Comedy link here.

It would also depend on who is asking me the question; I’d not call out anything by Karl Ove Knausgaard to a feminist, nor Borges, Bernhard or Trakl to somebody whose favourite book is The Girl on the Train. Another influence would be to answer completely opposite to what people are expecting, a literature nut would probably want to debate the intricacies of a work so I’d throw in something obscure like Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s Mirages of the Mind, the only book I’ve read that was translated from Urdu, knowing full well they wouldn’t have read it – I’m not into power games on intelligence or will.

Other influences could be the political agenda that needs addressing. There are a raft of women writers I enjoy, so if the person asking the question generally only reads Rushdie or Carey and thinks they are “worldly” I’d call out Olga Tokarczuk, from Poland, or Mexican Valeria Luiselli, who is pushing storytelling boundaries, playful but readable or another Mexican, Inés Arredondo, whose work focuses on marginalised peoples (generally women!)

Other times it is simply based on what I have been experiencing. After spending a month in the centre of Australia, remote with no telecommunication, no power (basically off the grid), there would be no point calling out Marlow’s personal journey of self discovery in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but if I’d been stuck for a while in my urbanity, I’d probably call out Zen monk’s Japanese Death Poems (edited by Yoel Hoffman) or something contemplative by Kenzaburo Oe.

But if you MUST have a single book, one that fits all of the criteria, it would be Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 for the sheer depth and audacity, crossing genres it can be seen as “incomplete” but like life, not everything makes up a whole, our search is for unity, you won’t find it here. Written in five disparate, but linked (can you have linked disparities?) parts, it is part mystery, part social commentary, part realism shattering, part philosophy…. A multi-lensed novel that is always unexpected, with the foreground suddenly slipping away to nothing and the minor player becoming the feature, it reflects our personal life journey. Although 900 or so pages, it is very much worth making the effort.

Ask me next week and the answer will be different.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles DickensA book that changed my world: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

As a 14-year-old I was asked what I was reading by my English teacher, and replied with Dickens’ first novel. Other kids probably weren’t reading but answered with the usual 1970’s kids titles. Thereafter the teacher used to ask me privately what I was reading and why, and would make some wonderful suggestions. It was through this experience that I became an avid reader and from that one who was confident in my understanding of narrative structure and therefore sought out works that challenged the norm.

For the past four years I have very much focused on literature in translation, as it gives me the cultural keys to a nation. For example, I recently spent three months solely reading works from central America and Chile. My understanding of the regime under General Pinochet, or the role of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or writers in exile in Mexico, gave me an appreciation of other cultural pressures, influences and concerns.

To think that this body of knowledge, which sits pretty much in my brain and nowhere else (my perception, interpretation of course, not the ability to read the same things), all stemmed from reading an 1830’s serialised novel and an attentive school teacher.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner by David IrelandA book that deserves a wider audience:  The Unknown Industrial Prisoner by David Ireland

People should read more poetry. Poetry predates literacy. If people read more poetry the ridiculous fuss that was made when Bob Dylan was named Nobel Laureate may not have been so ignorantly based. I’m fully for people having a differing opinion, and being able to express their concerns or disagreements, but when they just stupidly bemoan the Dylan announcement because “it’s not literature” then I get upset, and when it comes from those same people who think they’ve experienced world literature by reading Rushdie, Carey or Ferrante, then I get even grumpier.

If I was to name a single book though, not just “more poetry”, I’ve given a few hints in my answer to my favourite book, however I am always on the lookout for Australian writers who would push the boundaries. Having lived in Australia for 51 of my 54 years I’m pretty much an Aussie and I am a little dismayed that although we have a vibrant, thriving arts community, the amount of genre-bending work is pretty much impossible to find. Reading recent poetry collections by Michael Farrell, David Musgrave and Alan Loney have proven that this nation has the talent to write and can write in 2016, not simply be chained to some mythical colonial past. In the novel stakes the best sellers from Australia I find utterly devoid of any depth, the popularity of works such as The Rosie Project greatly disappoints me.

I’m currently reading David Ireland’s new novel The World Repair Video Game, a book published by Island Magazine in Tasmania and limited to 350 copies. Here is a writer, 89 years of age, who has won Australia’s honoured Miles Franklin Award three times (1971 for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, 1976 for The Glass Canoe and 1979 for A Woman of the Future), who struggled to get a work published for the past 28 years. This “myth” that his writing is dated, as we move into politically correct times, is a shock to me, and if somebody who has been appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia (in 1981) for his contribution to literature can’t get his book published in 2016 then what hope is there for writers who don’t pump out the formulaic works that fill those best seller shelves at airports and shopping malls?

It’s a bit rough calling out a book that deserves a wider audience when there are only 350 copies on the planet and they’ve all been sold, even though it is the book I would like to put here. But have a look at some of his earlier works such as The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. A contribution to the social fabric that is our nation today, he called out the “industrial adolescence” in 1971. Have we moved on from there in 2016?

Thanks, Tony, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

Some interesting choices. I’d like to second the suggestion that David Ireland deserves a wider audience — I read The Glass Canoe in 2013 and found it incredibly confronting, presenting as it does a very misogynistic world, but it was also totally compelling and I loved the refreshing structure of it. I went on to buy a couple more of Ireland’s novels (including the one Tony has singled out here) but am yet to read them.

What do you think of Tony’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Australia, Author, Book review, David Ireland, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland


Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Classics; 288 pages; 2012.

David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe won Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin Literary Award, in 1976. But the book — and Ireland himself — fell into a kind of obscurity. It has only recently been brought back into print thanks to Text Publishing’s Text Classics imprint, where, I am sure, it has found an entirely new audience.

But let’s be frank — this is a confronting book, probably one of the most confronting I’ve ever read, because it presents an entirely male world, one which revolves around alcohol, violence, sex and sexism. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, nor is it for those who are easily offended, especially by outdated and misogynistic attitudes to women.

The world inside a pub

The book is set entirely in a pub —  The Southern Cross hotel, situated in Northmead, western Sydney, to be precise — which is described as follows:

It was home. The world and history passed by on wheels. Life stayed outside. Babies were started, and born. Weddings, shootings, promotions, dismissals, hungers, past and future — all were outside.

So the pub is seen as a refuge, a home away from home. But it’s not a place of comfort — indeed, it’s a kind of metaphor for a different, more sinister, kind of world.

At night the Southern Cross often looked, even to me, an illuminated tomb. A sort of past solidified in masonry. The traffic tried to run by all the faster to stay in the present or the past might grab them. But to us, our tomb was where life was: outside was a world fit only to die in. The dark, a live monster, leaned on the roof and tried the glass doors. Its eyes were black, fathomless as death.

It is narrated by Lance, better known as Meat Man (a nickname which refers to the size of his penis — I told you this was a very male book), who lets us in to this secretive world inhabited by Australian males from the early 1970s, most of whom are poor, working class types who “drink to erase everything”.  He does this by recounting dozens of stories about the men who frequent the pub as well as his own adventures in drink and lust.

The book doesn’t follow the normal conventions of the novel — it’s a series of short fragments and episodes, some of them less than a page long, each one a separate tale in its own right. It feels disjointed at first, but there are common threads and themes running throughout, so that Ireland builds up a rich tapestry, albeit focused on action, not plot.

And the intimate nature of the prose — almost as if Lance is confiding his darkest secrets to you, and you alone — makes it a compelling read.

Adventures in alcohol

The Glass Canoe — the title, by the way, refers to a beer-filled glass  “and after however many glasses it took, the glass got bigger and bigger, we stepped into the glass and claimed our freedom to float away” — might be set in a pub, but it does not glorify drinking. If anything, it shows how alcohol dependence ruins lives and livelihoods.

It presents the drinker as a kind of underclass, even if Lance can’t quite identify with that view himself. Indeed, he thinks it quite humorous when his old school friend Sibley starts hanging around the pub studying the clientele for a university thesis. When he asks him how his investigations are going, Sibley says “I’m finding all sorts of things. This is another dimension here.”

‘They [drinkers] can’t survive in our world and in the future, Lance,’ he said
kindly. ‘The non-drinker is a member of the civilised races: the
drinker, no matter the language he speaks, belongs to one identifiable
inferior race spread throughout the planet. But to go on, some past
authorities say that to speak of intelligence in respect of drinkers is a
misnomer; they present hardly any of the phenomena of intellect. They
are unreflective and averse to abstract reasoning and sustained mental
effort.’ ‘You’re describing a drunk.’ ‘Lance, baby, that’s when a
drinker’s a drinker for Christ’s sake.’

Outdated attitudes to women

Lance also struggles to see how his misogynistic attitudes to women are anything other than normal — although he does warn the reader that “if this is not your style of thing, skip this paragraph” when he describes a trip to a strip club, so he clearly has boundaries. And while he appears very much besotted with “his Darling”, he still sleeps with other women whenever the opportunity presents itself. For Lance, and all the other randy blokes in this book, it is all about quantity, not quality.

Indeed, women are generally sneered at — “Did you know that on a golf course the ladies hit off from different tees, closer to the hole? They haven’t protested yet at the inequality” — unless, of course, they work behind the bar and/or look and behave like men.

But lest you think this book sounds rather hard-hitting, I have to confess I got quite a lot of laughs out of it. There’s a laconic sense of humour that keeps it from becoming a juggernaut of angst. And Lance, for all his faults, is a likable character — he might be sexist and enjoy a fight, but he stands up for the underdog, feels sympathy for the old men in the pub, appreciates Sibley’s attempts to better himself through education.

In short, even though The Glass Canoe is essentially about men drinking, fighting and shagging, I’m glad I read it. In its depiction of another time and another place it is very good, but as a raw glimpse of a macho mindset it is exceptional.

For another female take on this novel, please do read Lisa at ANZLitLover’s brilliant review.