Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

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Class act: Alan Hollinghurst’s venison

July 13, 2009

The Line of BeautyI’m loving The Line of Beauty, immersing myself in it at last after having avoided it for years because of Booker hype (how many of us, do you think, are turned off rather than on to a book by literary prize hoohaa?). But I’m having that thrill of discovery of a writer one instantly loves, knowing there are more of the author’s books lining up after this one to be enjoyed.

I so admire Hollinghurst’s psychological precision and the superfine texture of every passing moment. Tricky to pull off for long without making the prose drag, but right now it’s making me see how lumpen and heavyhanded are my own clumpings through scenes, and is particularly instructive for the novel I’m working on at the moment, which I now realise demands a much, much finer net in which to haul along its catch, if that makes any sense at all.

Anyway, of course this novel is all about class, being set in Thatcher’s England, when the young protagonist Nick is coming gloriously, though secretively, into his new love life as a gay man. He’s staying with family of his old Oxford friend Toby Fedden, Toby’s father being the up-and-coming parliamentarian Gerald. I am only a quarter of the way in, so have no idea what’s to come, but am loving the writing itself so much that I hope it takes a long time to unfold. But as Nick’s ultra-rich Tory hosts aren’t entirely aware that he’s gay, and his lover Leo is black and working class, I predict trouble at mill.

Last night I came to this passage about a long, ghastly dinner party full of homophobic old politicians, uptight matrons and pretentious upper-class claptrap. The beast in question comes from a family estate, prepared by the family’s ‘help’, Elena, in the afternoon and then served at dinner by pompous Gerald.

Elena hurried in from the pantry with the joint, or limb, of venison, plastered up in a blood-stained paste of flour and water. The whole business of the deer, culled at Hawkeswood each September and sent to hang for a fortnight in the  Feddens’ utility room, was an ordeal for Elena, and an easy triumph for Gerald, who always fixed a series of dinner parties to advertise and eat it. Elena set the heavy dish on the table just as Catherine came down from her room, with her hands held up like blinkers to avoid the sight. ‘Mm – look at that, Cat!’ said Badger.

‘Fortunately I won’t even have to look at you eating it,’ said Catherine; though she did quickly peer at it with a kind of relish of revulsion.

…. [later]

When the venison came in Gerald yapped, ‘Don’t touch the plates! Don’t touch the plates!’ so that it sounded as though something had gone wrong. ‘They have to be white hot for the venison.’  The fact was that the fat congealed revoltingly if the plates were less then scorching. ‘Yes, my brother-in-law has a deer park,’ he explained to Morden Lipscomb. ‘A rare enough amenity these days.’  The guests looked humbly at their helpings. ‘No,’ Gerald went on, in his bristling way of answering questions he wished someone had asked, ‘this is buck venison … comes into season before the doe, and very much superior.’  He went round with the burgundy himself. ‘I think you’ll like this,’ he said to Barry Groom, and Barry sniffed at it testily, as if he knew he was thought to have more money than taste.

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Moore fictional food from Lorrie

June 20, 2009

like life lorrieAnother taste of food-in-fiction from the superlative Lorrie Moore, still from this old collection Like Life.

This from a story called Joy, where Jane works in a midwestern shopping mall, in a cheese shop called Swedish Isle. Her job is to proffer samples of cheese spreads and dips on crackers out in front of the shop.

She liked the customer contact. “Care to try our chive-dill today?” she would ask brightly. She felt like Molly Malone, only friendlier and no cockles or mussels; no real seafood for miles. This was the deep Midwest. Meat sections in the grocery stores read: BEEF, PORK, and FISH STICKS.

“Free?” people would ask and pick up a cracker or a bread square from her plastic tray.

“Sure is.” She would smile and watch their faces as they chewed. If it was a man she thought was handsome, she’d say, “No. A million dollars,” and then giggle in the smallest, happiest way. Sometimes the beggars – lost old hippies and mall musicians- would come in and line up, and she would feed them all, like Dorothy Day in a soup kitchen.

Jane runs into an old high school friend in the mall.

“Bridey, you look great. What have you been up to?” It seemed a ridiculous question to ask of someone you hadn’t seen since high school, but there it was.

“Well, last year I fell madly in love,” Bridey said with great pride. This clearly was on the top of her list, and her voice suggested it was a long list. “And we got married, and we moved back to town after roughing it on the South Side of Chicago since forever. It’s great to be back here, I can tell you.” Bridey helped herself to a cheddar sample and then another one. The cheese in her mouth stuck between her front teeth in a pasty, yellowish mortar, and when she swallowed and smiled back at Jane, well, again, there it was, like something unfortunate but necessary.

At the end, Jane’s colleague Heffie quits work at the shop, “but the day she did she brought in a bottle of champagne, and she and Jane drank it right there on the job”.

They poured it into Styrofoam cups and sipped it, crouching behind the deli case, craning their necks occasionally to make sure no customers had wandered in.

“To our little lives,” toasted Heffie.

“On the prairie,” added Jane. The champagne fizzed against the roof of her mouth. She warmed it there, washing it around, until it flattened, gliding down her throat, a heated, sweet water.

She and Heffie opened a jar of herring in a cream sauce, which had a messily torn label. They dug their fingers in and ate. They sang a couple of Christmas carols they both knew, and sang them badly.

Inside the deli case, the dry moons of the cheeses and the mucky spreads usual plastic tags: HELLO MY NAME IS. Jane reached in and plucked out one that said, HELLO MY NAME IS Swiss Almond Whip.

Here,” she said to Heffie. “This is for you.” Heffie laughed, gravelly and loud, then took the tag and stuck it in one of her barrettes, up near the front, where the hair was vanishing, and the deforested scalp shone back in surprise, pale but constant, beneath.

Long extract, I know, but I couldn’t resist.

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A party piece

June 1, 2009

In honour of the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in some time – Gatz, the amazing reading / performance of The Great Gatsby, which I saw at the Sydney Opera House last night – I thought I’d revisit that beloved book here.

Gatz photo by Chris BeirensThe show is hard to describe, but anything that keeps one riveted for seven hours, with only two 15-minute and one 1-hour break, is a feat of wonder. It’s a stunning reading of the entire book by one spectacularly talented chap, Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, along with a supporting cast of 12 including the elusively beautiful Jim Fletcher as Gatsby (pictured). And it’s also got another wordless story running along beneath it, of the futile melancholy of office life – but that is another story. The originality and wit of the direction makes this an inventive, gloriously playful, surprising and – when it should be – desperately sad production.

There will be many who can describe Gatz better than I, so check out the reviews, like this one here. All I can say is a huge thank you to my friend Bec for taking me. It was a wonder. And one of the best things was its reminding me how beautiful is the writing in The Great Gatsby, so here is some for you. Surely no party since this was written has ever lived up to one of Gatsby’s wondrous soirees.  

There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In the blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends his Rolls Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oevre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

And when we came out, the sails of the Opera House were all lit up like a strange blue underwater garden. Seemed so apt, somehow, and made our night.

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Lorrie Moore’s fictional food

May 18, 2009

like lifeIn Lorrie Moore’s story Two Boys (Like Life, 1990), the protagonist Mary compares the two men she’s unhappily involved with.

Number One is successful, funny and married, and predictably treats her like crap. Number Two loves her, but is “tall and depressed and steady as rain”:

‘He’d kiss her, then weep into his own long arm. Mary worried about his health. Number One always ate at restaurants where the food – the squid, the liver, the carrots – was all described as “young and tender”, like a Tony Bennett song. But Number Two went to coffee shops and ate things that had nitrites and dark, lacy crusts around the edges. Such food could enter you old and sticking like a bad dream. When Two ate, he nipped nothing in the bud. It could cause you to grow weary and sad, coming in at the tail end of things like that.’ 

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More bad literary food

May 5, 2009

bookplateI have found a fellow bad-food-in-fiction-admirer in Geoff Nicholson, with his nice piece on literary food in the New York Times this month.  In his mini-essay, Go Ahead. Spoil My Appetite he says:

I’ve realized that the moments of literary eating I like best are the ones in which the characters suffer because of their food. In “Gravity’s Rainbow,” for instance, there’s an early scene in which the wartime inhabitants of a London maisonette enjoy bananas served in myriad forms, including mashed bananas “molded in the shape of a British lion rampant.” This is good stuff, but the truly magnificent scene in the book has Tyrone Slothrop sampling various hideous English candies, flavored with the likes of quinine, pepsin, eucalyptus, tapioca, until, choking, he’s offered a Meggezone, “the least believable of English coughdrops.” This is a real product, a nasty little black lozenge, still available, and if my childhood memory is reliable, Pynchon’s description of its effects — “Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs” — gets it about right.

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Helen Garner’s glass of orange juice

April 9, 2009

orange-juiceThis week, happenings in the lives of others have reminded me about the beauty of a compassionate act in the face of an unbearable thing … a dying friendship, a ghastly stranger, a rejection, an illness, a death. Back on the first aid food track I guess, food being such a simple way of making an offering – peace, sorrow, love. After I wrote the first aid food post I recalled a glass of orange juice in Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, a book that is partly about wishing to find compassion in yourself when it is most needed, and finding it lacking.

In the book, following a desperate week of caring for her friend with cancer, Nicola, who is suffering horrendous pain and enduring a bogus and terribly painful alternative cancer ‘therapy’, Helen escapes to a small family birthday party at her daughter’s house next door, while Nicola sleeps in Helen’s spare room, exhausted from another day of brutal ‘treatment’.

The rain kept gently falling. Mitch brought me a glass of sparkling shiraz. Soon the dinner was on the table. All was orderly and festive. There were sixty-four candles. The effort to blow them out made my head spin.

Every half hour I ran home to check on Nicola. The first few times she was asleep. Then i found her sitting on the edge of her bed in the dark, eyes closed, spine bowed, hands folded in her lap. Her loneliness pierced me.

‘What can I bring you, old girl?’

‘In all the world,’ she said in a slurred voice, ‘I most would love a glass of orange juice.’

I squeezed the last two fruits we had, and brought her the foaming glass. She drank it sip by sip.

‘That,’ she whispered, ‘was the freshest, most delicious orange juice I’ve ever drunk in my life.’

I tucked her back into bed, and she subsided with a sigh.

When at ten o’clock I came home for good, I stood outside her door for a long time and listened to her slow, snoring breaths. One day soon they would stop.

Anyone who’s cared for a seriously ill person, I reckon, will recognise stuff in this book whether they like it or not. But hopefully you recognise not just the unexpected discovery of great ugliness in oneself  (that’s the real, uncomfortable truth of the novel for me), but some of these small moments of beauty, and love.

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Roast beef and eels and fleeting cruelties

March 12, 2009

eel1Meal-times are so rich with understated potential for conflict, it’s no wonder they appear so often in fiction. I’ve just been dipping into William Maxwell’s beautiful stories All the Days and Nights once again. I so love them.

One story, A Game of Chess, details an evening spent by Hugh and his wife Laura with Hugh’s unpleasant older brother Amos and his family and friends, at a New York hotel in the mid 60s.

The whole evening is tense with suppressed, unsaid things, or brief and brutal comments. Hugh hears Amos saying to Laura, “You must come out to Chicago. We’ve got a housing project with niggers and white people living together” – a remark ‘intended to beat Laura out of the bushes and perhaps test the timbre of her rising voice.’ But she doesn’t take the bait; ‘She was there to defend Hugh, not to argue.’

In a tiny moment that comes and goes beautifully quickly, Amos orders well done roast beef and Hugh, to draw a line between himself and Amos, orders eels (I can’t imagine how in 1960s America these little babies would be cooked but I’m pretty sure the gorgeous smoked Japanese variety wasn’t it … ugh). Read the rest of this entry ?

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Adriatic Salad and other fictional foods

March 4, 2009

adriaticsalad1When my novel The Children came out I received several very gratifying emails from readers who particularly liked the family barney in the fictional country town of Rundle’s RSL Club restaurant, which featured an escalating  argument between two adult siblings, Mandy and Stephen, sparked by a dish on the menu described thus: ‘Adriatic Salad: Cajun prawns, sweet potato, snow peas and lime mayonnaise.’

For some reason, lots of people liked the sound of this dish. A couple of people even wanted the recipe. That salad actually exists, in a motel restaurant in a country town that will remain nameless, where I did a bit of research for the book – it seemed too good to be true, so I pinched it.  I quite enjoyed writing that scene actually – and now I find myself scanning menus hopefully at all times now for fictional fodder. Tricky though –  it would be so easy to repeat oneself, but there’s such a wealth of material out there I’m not sure I will be able to resist bad menu items for the book I’m writing now (I’ve got three words to say to you, Kimmy: Gourmet Pizza Kitchen).

On the topic of food in fiction, here is a wonderful New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik about cooking real dishes after  their fictional appearances in books, with varying results. He says, for example, of the eponymous dish from Gunter Grass‘s Nobel-provoking novel The Flounder:

Eating Günter Grass’s flounder was actually like reading one of his novels: nutritious, but a little pale and starchy.