Inception of a great project
Ron decided to write a narrative in which his friends could recognise themselves. He would use their character traits, or second names, or things they said and did only the day before—or even things they hadn't said or done yet. In this way, he would also be able to delineate the essential characteristics of contemporary society, write at the leading edge of social change, bring it about almost.
He rang up Bill. 'Bill,' he said, 'I've started to write a novel in which my friends can recognise themselves. I've got to get someone to read me, and this might work.'
'I think there is a some danger of tending to triviality in such a stratagem, don't you?' said Bill, 'and why are you calling me Bill?'
'I want to preserve people's privacy, so not only the names will be changed to protect you, innocent or not. I want to use bits of you that only you can recognise, character traits, second names, things you say to me, things you do. But I'll change other things. I think I'll make you an architect, for example.'
'Well, thank god for that. I've been sitting at this table working on these drawings all morning, so I wouldn't want to suddenly have to be a gynaecologist or something. I can't even spell it. So: we'll all have to watch what we say, will we, or it may be taken down and turned into history?'
'Yes. Any old garbage will be grist to my artistic mill. In fact, you could say I intend to reverse Henry Ford's dictum, and make bunk into history.'
Bill ruminated. 'I suppose I could join you in this conservationist project. We'll stop throwing away words. I'll riffle through your garbage and you can use mine. Sort of writers' swap-meet. Right. Say something interesting that I can use. Let's get going!'
'I already have.'
Although the shower was the best place for moments of creative impulse, and, as his wife said, it was lucky he had a long one the morning he rang Bill, because if he'd had a short one he would only have thought of a short story, instead of conceiving a novel—despite that, it was at the Japanese party that Ron had begun to take to the idea. He'd brought the few pages for Kate, in a plain brown envelope, and there was a sensitive-looking chap who was actually reading a poem in the Fremantle Arts Review. Ron was so impressed by these congruences that he whipped out his own document, and offered a piece of prose instead. It was passed around and almost everyone had a nibble.
'Where did the idea come from?' the sensitive-looking chap wanted to know.
'Well, it happened,' he replied in an undertone. Don't confuse them with the facts.
Others just laughed at the witty bits. It really was like passing around a plate of Balkan. Sweet bits, crunchy bits, putting on weight you don't want or need, not much to say about it. No feedback, but they were reading!
George in unremitting detail
Ron arranged to have lunch with George.
'With regard to lunch, would you prefer Tuesday, Wednesday, or why not today?' he had proposed.
'Today would be perfect.' Nothing passé about George.
'Your place or mine?' he deleted. Jokes had to be better or worse than that.
They had lunch at that little place in Subiaco where the house wine was FAQ. The food was definitely worse. The Hare Krsna would have had to exorcise it.
'Well, what did you think of it?' Ron asked at last, having survived the entrée.
'I'll tell you in unremitting detail,' said George, 'but first, why do you have to call me George? What kind of a name is that?'
'Well, I'd tell you, but it's time I went to bed. I have to get to some sleep if I'm going to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for this lunch we're going to have tomorrow.'
What could George say? Only the future will tell.
Joel popped a roast in the oven
'The problem, Ron told Kate, 'is whether sex is separate or not from the other parts of a relationship between a man and a woman. Take the movie I saw last night for example, about this kid who's trying to deal with the problem of girls: he feels OK with boys, takes them for granted, but girls are something else, something rich and strange. He's in love with Dorothy at the beginning, but by the end he's made friends with Susan or whatever, and he's made the great discovery that girls are people. But—when he goes out with her again, at some point sex is going to be a problem again, or rather a different kind of a problem. Can he be just friends with her, or will she become just a sexual partner, potential or actual, or can he be both friends with her and at the same time be driven crazy with pubescent lust.'
'Why are you talking such a load of crap to me?' she asked. 'You sound like an early Frank Moorhouse story.'
'Well, I've got all these early problems I've never had the opportunity to work out, and I've never had a friend like you before.'
'That's got to be the most complicated line anyone ever tried on me, if that's what you're really doing, as I presume you are.'
'Ah, but what exactly do you mean by "really"?' he retorted.
'You know what I mean. I mean that your disarming honesty is actually a way of getting power. You actually get a hell of a lot of power you know,' she confessed.
'This conversation's actually getting somewhere now,' he warmed to the task. 'Let's talk about power. I once decided you could explain everything that mattered by having recourse to one simple triangular model. It had power at one apex, love at another, and I forget what the hell the other thing was, but it sure had a lot of explanatory power. Do you want another glass of wine?'
'Yes please,' she smiled sweetly. Rheingold was still blasting away on the telly. Ron's wife had just discovered it wasn't a kind of wine.
'But getting back to the business of my disarming honesty,' he went on when he came back with a glass of something red and marginally worse than Rhinegold, 'it's not as simple as that. There isn't just one degree of self-consciousness, one transcendental ego. If there were, we wouldn't fall over when we thought about walking, but we do!' he concluded triumphantly.
'What?' she inquired, none too politely. 'I can think about walking without falling over. What the hell are you talking about?'
'Don't think about it too much. These things can drive you mad. I've been worrying about it for years. That's why I wanted to write a Ph.D. about recursion, if you see what I mean. But I kept—um—falling down on the job. I couldn't work out how far back to start.'
His wife came into the room. The fire was burning, irrelevantly, but gave atmosphere. 'Did you leave the back door open for a reason?' she asked him.
'Well you put the catch down when you let me out, so I thought you wanted it left open, for the cats to get out or something.'
'That was just so that you could get back in again. It's been open all this time, letting all the atmosphere out.'
'Well you put the catch down.'
'Yes, and you came in last.'
'Will you shut up!' Kate jumped up and left the room, saying as she did, 'I'm glad I'm not married any more.'
His wife left the room too, and left that door open, letting the atmosphere that was in the lounge leak out into the hall so that it would be ready to rush out the back door as soon as some character opened it. The character would then go out too.
'I'm glad you're not married anymore too,' he said when Kate came back. He liked having the first word.
'Why did you say that?' she asked. 'What did you mean by that?'
He didn't know. That is, he did, but it was too complicated to say that he wished he wasn't married anymore either, and he was glad for anyone who wasn't married anymore. Well, not that it was too complicated. It was really that he thought the apparent meaning might as well stand: that he meant that he was glad that she was available now. But he didn't know if he wanted to be friends with her, or just wanted to be driven mildly crazy with very post-pubescent lust. He thought he'd just let it hang in the air as a potentially fruitful ambiguity.
So the conversation stopped for a while. He fast-forwarded through lots of Rheingold. The characters stumbled around meaninglessly. He read the subtitles.
What led to the part about whether sex was separate or not was that he had said that he had something to say to her, and then had started to laugh. Emerging from the pluperfect, he explained that although he had been enjoying the idea of an intimate relationship with her, he now wished to say that he was no longer in this state of indelicate expectancy, as he had realised that it was too much to expect that a woman like her, young, vibrant, clever, full of energy and joie de vivre, could possibly be interested in a boring old turd like him. 'In a boring old turd like me,' he said.
She laughed and thought for a while, and after some other desultory remarks was about to explain that the reverse was also true, when unfortunately the flashback came to a sudden end. But he'd heard it all before anyway.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Alberich the Nibelung turned into a dragon, although he'd read in the program notes that it was Fasolt (or maybe Fafner) who did. He supposed it meant that everyone has a scaly lining to their coat which turns out unpredictably.
'I must go,' Kate said, unexpectedly. He laughed, it was so unlikely, what with his fatal charm, and his wife's ability to feed the multitude with only five cauliflowers and pickled pork. 'I told Joel I might,' she went on, unimpressed with this display of vegetable potency, 'and that meant that I would. When he rang, and I said I might come for dinner, he told me he was going to pop a roast in the oven, so I have to go.'
'Does this mean that you're going to have dinner with Joel, when you've just told me you can't stand him, in preference to me ?' he remonstrated, getting himself into italics.
'I want to try just being friends with him. When I said I couldn't stand him touching me I meant—well—that. But if he still he wants to see me sometimes, have me round, that's all right with me.'
'So you think it's possible to separate sex from friendship?' he began again.
'I don't think Joel thinks so, but I think I think I do,' recursively she ended.
Hilary's late-industrial Angst
Ron heard the doorbell ring while he was trying on his op shop pants. It could be an invasion, someone selling something, or wanting him to vote for somebody, or worse: someone wanting love. But it was only Hilary.
'Hi Pillory! Come in!' he said.
Hilary was as usual unamused by this sleight of the tongue. He was wearing his car coat, an enormous brown woollen overcoat with the sleeves turned up. Hilary had a Mini Moke and liked to drive with the roof down and his hair consequently up.
'I was just passing so I thought I would drop in for a cup of tea.'
Not promising stuff. Not much late-industrial Angst there. But time would tell.
'How's the play going?'
'We had our first night last night, as a matter of fact.' Standing in the hall, the ceiling half intense blue, half re-painted in white with one quarter peach blossom, his head almost scraping it, homo enormous.
'How were you received?'
Gesture of indifference, indicating a hopeless combination of stupid critics and incompetent fellow-actors. In the kitchen now, taking up the whole space between the bench and the fridge. Ron's wife—better give her a name I suppose, Lynne, let's say, easy to remember, might change it later—Lynne put the water in the microwave. No substitute for the gumleaf in the billy, but a lot quicker.
Ron had red wine. 'I hope you don't mind if I have red wine. I presume you don't want any? What time do you go up?'
'Eight o'clock, but I have to go home before then.'
'Can't you stop for tea, then? I was hoping you could stop for tea,' Lynne hoped.
'No thanks. I probably won't have any.'
'What sort of part have you got?'
'Nice little part. Not too long.'
'Sort of cameo role?'
Lynne got out the Conversation biscuits. Just as well. Though they wouldn't really help the situation much. Maybe he should give Hilary a different name. But then Hilary always got a lot of mileage out of his name. If people couldn't manage to wonder what a nice guy like him was doing in a place like that, or hadn't they met somewhere before, there was always his name to talk about. Lots in a name. Much in little.
Hilary took two Conversation biscuits.
'Do you get paid according to the size of the role?'
'No, you just get basic Equity rates.'
'Don't you get more if you're a star?'
'I'm actually solvent at the moment,' Hilary expanded. 'But I'm thinking of buying a word processor. Though I had a go at typing the other night, and I got pains all up and down my arms.'
Hilary suffered from too many conjunctions, which is maybe why he had Repetitive Strain Injury. The conjunctions started up in his brain, and presented themselves to him as everything being related to everything else, but not in an orderly network. This knot attempted to travel down through his nervous system with commands which said things like: 'And type the first word of this novel!' With the result that the conjunction could not get through and neither could the rest of the sentence. It was a serious problem, though Hilary printing with his left hand looked funny.
Ignorance: one of the sources of the risible. Ludicrous, really.
Ron remembered something someone had told him once about reactive inhibition. Something to do with self-consciousness increasingly interfering with an action until it wasn't possible to go on doing it, whatever it was. The more you worry about something the harder it is to do it. Like sex.
Mentally, he filed RSI next to Impotence under Modern Diseases.
Blood in our time
He went round to see Declan and Stella and give their spade back.
'What's new?' he inquired, wanting to hear what was new. Desultory replies. Grunts, talk of sand and stones. 'Say something interesting!' Ron ordered. 'I'm writing this novel and putting in what everyone says and does. It'll be a document of the times in which we live.'
'I cut my toe,' offered Stell. 'See the blood?' He looked. He wondered what Tolstoy would do with material like this. Not exactly the Battle of Waterloo, though there was a patch of blood. He decided not to put it in.
'I've got the printed music for Blood on the Tracks ,' said Declan. There's some good stuff on it.'
'I've been trying to avoid listening to Bob Dylan since 1962.'
Declan was wearing just his white baggy shorts with no underpants that he could see through a hole in the side. It was a cold day, but the sun was shining, and Declan was sweating as he dug a hole for the well he was installing. It wasn't a well to get water from, but a well to get rid of the water that ran down the path and coagulated outside the front door. He thought they would be well rid of the water. It was thinner than blood.
Here's listening to you, kid!
Frances comes around to get her essay on the word processor. She's good-looking, although not looking good. She has some notes, he notes. She talks about what she's trying to say. Ron's trying to read the notes to see what he thinks she thinks. She dictates, with the swiftness of arrows from Zeno's bow. He watches whole seasons pass by outside the window. Buds burgeon, leaves grow green, grow brown, shrivel up... Just for a change he has the shrivelled leaves grow back, turn green again, turn into buds. The dictator continues. Soon they have a whole paragraph on the screen. It's about looking and listening. Here's a bit of it, with acknowledgements.
Much pressure has been brought to bear in feminist theory upon questions of 'the look' and 'speaking position' or enunciation, and although speech must, by its own logic, presuppose its reception on an auditory level, perhaps there is still work needed in the consideration of 'hearing position' or 'audition'—in this sense of the word. By suggesting an examination of 'hearing' I don't intend to deny the significance of theorising about the look, or speech, but feel that the function of hearing in the signifying series has not been adequately disturbed and re-assessed.
Ron feels disturbed, hearing this, and re-assesses his hearing position. He tries not to look at Frances too much, in case he brings masculinist pressure to bear on her. Ron wonders why he can't say 'masculinist' instead of 'sexist'. Then he thinks he is taking all this too seriously, when, after all, there are songs to be sung, seasons to change, stories to tell. In self-defence, he tells himself a story.
Years later, Frances came to his bar in Ouagoudougou. She looked more beautiful than he remembered, maybe because she was with another man now. Although they seemed bound together by ideology rather than lust.
The man was fine-featured and called Raoul. He was a hero, although not in this story. In this story he is too good to be true, and so a bastard. Rick bought them a drink anyway. They talked obliquely about the war. The country was neutral, but the baddies still lurked, bringing pressure to bear. It was important to save Raoul from them, preserving him for the struggle. Rick did not advert to this. And Frances did not ask him for any favours.
The chief of police came in, played perhaps by Broderick Crawford. This improved Frances's appearance, by contrast. 'Hi! I might look like a baddy,' he said, 'and I take bribes and things, but in the moral universe of this story, I am a real goody, because those German baddies are beyond the pale, and I am much better than them. Give me a bribe and I'll show you how incorruptible I really am by giving you what you want. Ten four?'
Well, that was the gist of what he said when you read between the lines of several paragraphs. And what this shows is that whereas in the real world morality is relative, in the world of the story, relative positions become absolute ones.
The Germans were baddy of the month.Their army struck up Die Wacht am Rhein. They sang really well, showing the independence of aesthetic criteria from moral ones. And anyway they weren't bad in themselves. Their toilet training was exemplary. It was just that some of them had overdeveloped curiosity bumps, and found it hard to stop themselves from taking people apart to see what made them work, and doing social experiments.
Frances was an absolute baddy too, although in a different domain, because she had broken Rick's heart by refusing to take him to her breast, which sent him back to the bottle. It was the look of her (she looked like a blue angel) which made her especially bad. Perhaps plastic surgery would have helped, or a duelling scar.
Rick listened to her excuses for being rotten at the core despite seeming so rosy. She had been spiked by a wicked stepmother. He gave her an audition, then told her not to call him. He wouldn't call her back either.
In the end Raoul went back to his other story where he is a pure hero, and Frances went with him to wash dishes until the Liberation, and have kids, which may or may not explain this story's title. Rick's last look of Frances was of her back side. But he had heard her out of the place.
Someone speared the Coopers
Ron went to the pub with Curran. Their wives were out having their consciousnesses raised, so the boys thought they should restore the balance by lowering theirs. 'Too much consciousness can be a bad thing, like honesty', said Ron. 'Take my wife, for example...' But then they had a drink instead.
The Coopers stank. The ale was ailing. Someone had stuck the spear right down to the bottom of the barrel where the sediment was. And it cost an arm and a leg for a half pint. But, the manager organised a freeby, so Oz beer kept the faith.
The barmaid was not really a barmaid, nor any kind of a maid, but a student and a writer. There seemed to be only two kinds of barmaids, thought Ron later. The kind with consciousnesses like flat beer—the ones you can often see through; and then the ones who are real smart, even if street ditto. They don't drink, and are either writing a novel or investing in the share market or own their own houses, and indicate to you without any malice, as you sink into the Slough of Dipsomania, that you are a slob and a person of limited vision.
The present specimen of Type 2 was called Dora, and was wearing the latest style in unbleached hair roots, and had an aggressive nose. She pointed it at Curran a lot, and told him how her career was proceeding.
The women in the Department read some bits, especially Magda and Joan, who were a peck or two up in the order. Magda asked if the Uni was going to be in the story, but he suspected that they simply wanted to be in the book. Magda was tall and Czech and Joan was Manx. They both liked flowers. They had posters and things around their office to make it look more lived in. There was one picture of an anorexic princess in a green dress that he particularly detested. He detested the princess as well. The green made him think of frogs. 'Frog Princess,' he thought, but he couldn't see how he could use it. He decided to leave it out, but to keep Magda and Joan's flowers and posters in, because he wanted the story to look lived in.
Magda and Joan complained about their names. 'They remind me of the names in stories I used to read as a girl,' said Joan. 'Names like Abigail and Penelope.'
'Abigail, that's a nice name,' he said. 'Maybe I'll call you Abigail.'
'No, that reminds me of Number 96, 'interjected Magda.
He looked at the A Country Practice calendar on the wall. Also on the wall were the text of Advance Australia Fair, posters showing the Opera House and Australia II, and a photocopy of Magda's naturalisation certificate, which had her date of birth on it. Three pampas grass stalks stood in a Nescafe jar covered with orange paper.
'You started this all off, you know,' explained Magda in her charming Scottish accent. It wasn't true about her being Czech. 'Do you remember what you had in your room when you first came? Those gorgeous plastic flowers. We thought we would brighten this place up a bit too.'
'Well it's a credit to you. It looks really lived in.' It was that sort of Department. Secsy.
Ron sat in Old Papas and read the review in ABR. It was the number with the article 'On Ficto-Criticism'. Mary was with him, before Katharine arrived.
'Look', he said to anyone who would listen, 'it says here that this is probably the section the academic "gossip-machine" will turn to first, and this was the first section that I turned to, and now I'm being the gossip-machine.' The review was of one of those smutty books about people the author knew: it was a gossip-machine itself, which was probably one of the points the author was making in writing that. Ron thought it was despicable—the book, not the review. The review was dull.
Ron borrowed a pen from Mary. 'You can keep it,' she said. 'It's University property anyway.'
'I'll keep it forever', he lied. 'Or at least until it runs out.'
He wrote in the back cover of ABR: 'Either you write about the dyad, or in the dyad.' He explained to Mary that if you had something sexy to write about, like Derrida in Post Card, then you wrote about it, but if you didn't, you wrote sexily to the reader, to create a relationship with her. Later he thought that if that didn't seem to be working (there are not too many literary groupies, are there) you could write about that relationship, as Calvino does in On a winter's night a traveller... Ron wished he had something sexy to write about. He wished it was about him and Katharine.
It was nice in Old Papas. Painters passed and greeted, kissed, shook hands, people in local government, teachers of Transcendental Meditation. It was a warm day, pre-pubescent summer.
Ron accepted an invitation to a party from a passing Karyn, who looked different in a hat with no forehead.
There was a lot of it about, foreheadlessness, despite ABR. Cafe society. Life measured out in coffee spoons and granitas, and the dreaded black forrest (sic).
In Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl at one point has a representative from each region of Germany answer the question, 'Where do you come from?' They say 'Prussia!' and so forth. The last is this giant with a profoundly long larynx who booms 'Vom Schwarzwald!' ('From the Black Forest!') Ron couldn't remember anything else about the film. Which either shows you how short-term are the effects of propaganda, or else the close connexion between sex and power. 'Let me give myself another example', he thought. (Of the latter, he meant—sex and power—because propaganda doesn't sell many Fremantle Arts Centre Press books.)
I was in the restaurant downstairs in Old Papas one night, dutifully considering all the Italian options, when a tall waiter suddenly appeared next to my left ear and boomed in the deepest voice I had ever heard was I ready to order? (Ron listened carefully to himself thinking, although he had heard it before.) I was so surprised that I immediately ordered the most macho thing on the menu, pepper steak, even though I hadn't noticed it until that moment, and although it wasn't Italian. Such tricks testosterone plays on us.
This last because Katharine's son, 13, of Cottesloe, was given to blaming 'all that testosterone coursing through his body' to explain various aberrations, like not tidying up his room, and throwing things across the table when he should pass them.
It was the day of Bruce's fortieth birthday, and Ron had bought him a designer toothbrush, with the flimsy excuse that he was a man who had everything, although the real reason was that it was cheap. He was going to the party that night, and would report on it later, if he could ever figure out in what tense you reported about something that hadn't happened yet. The conditional didn't seem right, but then the past was now serving for the present—so it was all getting, as T. S. Eliot wrote, a bit unredeemable.
Ron thought that writing about Arthur might redeem temps perdu, or the narrative anyway. As Lesley once said, the unconscious is not structured like a language, it's structured like gossip. And no-one was better structured than Arthur for a bit of good goss.
Ron thought he would run around to Arthur's place and tell him that on the way to the party.
New: 26 October, 2011 (the stories were written in 1986) | Now: 22 November, 2016