Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Free

The Free

We hear a lot about American extremes, whether it’s gossip about the extremely wealthy, or reports of violence among the extremely disaffected. But what of those who will never be successful, but are neither on the rampage nor quite on the skids? For that, we once relied on Joe Bageant; but since his untimely death a couple of years ago we have needed to look elsewhere.

One serious contender is Willy Vlautin. Vlautin, who has worked in warehouses and at painting houses, is also a gifted and elegant writer. He writes essays and novels and, as songwriter and vocalist for Richmond Fontaine, songs; and he has just released a novel about ordinary people in the mess that is America.

The Free opens when Leroy, an Iraqi veteran suffering brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, wakes in the night. To his astonishment, he is having a rare moment of clarity. It has been so long since he has experienced this, and he is so profoundly grateful for the gift and the beauty he perceives, that he cannot bear to descend again into darkness and confusion. He decides to liberate himself, and attempts suicide. This is a framing device for the character-driven novel which goes on to describe small, good things (as Raymond Carver once put it) done by small, good people who are themselves on the brink of collapse.

Leroy lives in a home for servicemen with acquired brain injuries, and Freddie, the nightwatchman, finds him. Freddie tends his wounds, calls the ambulance and Leroy’s mother, and gently helps the other servicemen back to bed. As the story progresses we learn that Freddie is crippled by medical bills. He works in a paint store by day and in the group home by night; even so, his house is twice mortgaged and his power is about to be cut off. Despite these pressures, he finds kind words for the counterwoman at the donut shop each morning, and drops by the hospital between workplaces each evening to sit with Leroy and leave small gifts on his nightstand.

Coming in and out of Leroy’s room is Pauline, a nurse. Pauline becomes particularly attached to one patient, a young teenage runaway; and she also cares for her mentally ill father who spends his days on the couch watching TV. We also meet Leroy’s mother and ex-girlfriend, and numerous other minor characters.

Their interwoven stories are studded by Leroy’s PTSD-driven nightmares. In his mind, Leroy and his ex-girlfriend are on the run from the super race. Having been marked as cowards, they are being hunted down for slaughter. Images of war – hangings, shootings, bloodbaths – pepper his visions, which gradually reveal his self-understanding as someone who is unable to integrate his experience of war and is permanently damaged as a result.

It is difficult to write about decent people without mawkishness or naïveté, but Vlautin manages it with rare grace. These are no saints, just people getting by – but choosing to get by as well as they can, given their crushing circumstances. His spare style recalls Carver’s lean prose, spliced with Leroy’s Orwellian dystopic dreams.

Although it is a story about individuals, The Free also illuminates the toxic effects of untrammelled capitalism. Leroy joins the National Guard to impress his boss and keep his job, not knowing it could lead to overseas service. Freddie is bankrupted by private healthcare and criminally low wages. Although he flirts with potentially lucrative illegal work, the timing of other events means he is still shunted into sub-standard housing. Pauline’s father lives in cold filth for fear of heating and water bills. Others live on the streets or in squats, or get involved in endeavours that lead to prison. The Free touches on these and many other issues as it describes life in the corporatocracy and ponders where people on the margins find freedom. And while Vlautin has no paradigm-shattering answers, he does offer small and precious glimpses of grace.

The High Country [Digipak]

Friday, June 6, 2014

Eating Heaven: Spirituality at the Table

I may be biased, but my friend Simon wrote a terrific book last year, Eating Heaven. And I loved it. I read it very slowly and savoured every bite.

Each chapter focusses on one table: the kitchen table, the backyard table, the café table, the restaurant table, right up to the table of communion. And each chapter has stories, interviews, history and reflections on that table: eating with mum and dad in the kitchen, sharing a meal with marginalised men and women at a free lunch, having a coffee with a chef between shifts, and so on. Each chapter then ends with a recipe reflecting the type of eating that happens at that particular table.

The book is layered and rich, reflecting Simon’s background as trained chef, sociologist, theologian, and Baptist minister. It also reflects his love of Melbourne in the descriptions of laneway cafés and linen-topped restaurant tables; the juxtaposition of social inclusion and fancy pastries at one downtown church; and the transformative power of eating together in a multicultural city. Whether reminiscing over crowded kitchen tables or backyard barbecues, or savouring the perfect café latte or fancy restaurant dinner, Simon is always thoughtful. In a culture of empty food porn, his voice nourishes and refreshes. He not only enjoys the food, but also contemplates how poverty and wealth, hospitality and exclusiveness, celebration and mourning, and many other issues play out when we sit down at the table. His gentle questions and tentative suggestions are always thought-provoking.

More, they have an effect. Eating together is central to being human; and Eating Heaven reminds us of this gift. In my own household, reading it has triggered a couple of changes. For one, we have returned to a more intentional saying of grace. Despite trying various things over the years, grace had become a rushed magic formula that one or another kid would gabble as they reached for the serving spoon. It was worse than if we had not said it at all. But after reading this book, I have asked that we return to saying grace properly. Now we move between a candle and a responsive prayer; a minute’s silence before the meal; or held hands and a song depending on the mood – and we are loving this grateful pause at the end of the day, this moment of being together before we eat our dinner.

Eating Heaven has also recalled us to simple acts of hospitality, which we largely left behind in the maelstrom of having a third child. A few years on, we’re again able to make time for a coffee with friends, or invite others to eat with us in our home; and Eating Heaven has been a catalyst for thinking about why we eat together and how to do it well.

The stories, reflections and very good questions make this a book to savour, and slowly digest. Thank you, Simon.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Life Drawing: a novel

Life Drawing

It is rare that one reads a soliloquy on a long term of relationship, but Life Drawing is just that. Gus (short for Augusta) and Owen have been together for a quarter of a century, and their relationship is coloured by grief, a betrayal, and their inability to have children.

The novel begins with the fact of Owen’s death, then goes back in time to tell the story which lead up to it. A new neighbour has moved in, disrupting their rural solitude, and the resulting relationships have deep ramifications. This structure gives the book the shape of a thriller, if a rather beautiful and sedate one. (And I predicted the ending less than halfway through: not very thrilling, perhaps.)

However, the plot is not the point of this book. What makes it special is the portrait of a long marriage, seen through the eyes of Gus. Intimacy and solitude are woven together; the partners negotiate with and allow for each other in a careful, thoughtful dance. Gus observes her husband and herself with an acute eye, moving between love and anger, guilt and frustration, affection and jealousy. At times she has the eye of a lover, at other times, a maternal eye. Their sex life ebbs and flows, from non-existent to raunchy; from passionate connection to ‘the sex that’s like the decent enough music you listen to because the drive is so long and it’s the only radio station you can pick up’. Like every marriage, they navigate difficult emotional terrain; they interpret each other’s behaviour; they talk and keep quiet; they makes mistakes and choose kindness; they eat lunch.

As well as the marriage, Gus’s relationships with their new neighbour, Alison; a former student, Laine; and her father and sister are charted with intelligence and restraint. So too are the long-term effects of betrayal, guilt and grief. These depictions felt very true: closely observed, honest, and wise, and it is for this that I recommend the book.

My only wish was that it had ended differently. The denouement felt unnecessary, pandering to the more sensational expectations of a television audience rather than hewing to the quiet wisdom of the rest of the book. It detracted from what was otherwise a very thoughtful meditation. I’d have loved to have read this book one page short of chapter 21, and had the preceding story shaped accordingly. However, in the final chapter, Gus posits different ways the story might have continued. This reader, then, suggests reading this otherwise moving novel, but deciding on one’s own, preferred, outcome. I’d go with the last paragraph of the novel, perhaps.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Kith: The riddle of the childscape

Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape

When was the last time you encountered the word ‘tatterdemalion’? I have just read one of the most playful, exuberant, relishing encounters with language that I have ever come across: Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, by Jay Griffiths. The author loves language and odd words; she plays with meanings and roots and etymologies; she relishes alliteration and other musical tricks; and the cadence of her writing is positively lyrical. Or, as she writes (in relation to the metaphors we have for feeling and knowing, but which equally pertains to her modes of expression), ‘Language…, a beautiful partisan, waits with rifle and song to ambush us into remembering what we used to know as children.’

Yes, the writing is beautiful, drawing the reader in; but the point of the book is not language. Instead, in the course of writing her last book, Wild, Griffiths visited many indigenous tribes and found herself wondering why the indigenous kids she observed were so cheerfully grounded, while the Western kids she knew were so unhappy by comparison. Kith is her attempt to answer that question.

Her answer is long, opinionated, and unabashedly Romantic. In brief, she argues that kids in the West rarely get what they really need: secure early attachment followed by extreme freedom; a relationship with the woods and the wild, including wildlife; a big tribe of kids and adults; stories packed with metaphor which allow for the expression of a child’s emerging sense of self; lots of free time; rites of passage into adulthood; freedom from consumerism; a rich, responsive education; and so on.

Instead, what they get is ‘controlled’ crying and the physical isolation of cots, prams and car seats, followed by helicopter parenting and little nuclear families; constant surveillance; highly structured schedules; media outlets and politicians which portray them in a constantly negative light; stop and search laws, curfews and dispersal orders for the crime of being young; lives trapped indoors; hollow stories; no rites of passage; and industrial-style, heavily politicised education.

None of these observations are particularly original. In recent years, Skenazy encouraged parents to let their kids be more independent; Louv urged kids into the great outdoors; Hodgkinson called for tribes and freedom and faerie stories; Robinson advocated for an education which drew out the unique gifts of each child; and many, many writers begged us chilly Westerners to be more physically affectionate with our babies and toddlers. It’s obvious stuff.

What sets Griffiths’ book apart is the way she brings these themes together under the umbrella of Romanticism. She compares the childhood experiences of Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Blake, Clare, Whitman – with indigenous practices of childcare, arguing that they have much in common; and goes on to suggest that these approaches will lead to happier children. Further, she argues, we lack (but need) a Western philosophical framework to describe our parenting practices; Romanticism fits the bill.

I love her writing; I agree with many of her observations regarding how kids could be better raised; and I find many of her arguments regarding Romantic and indigenous ways of raising children reasonable. However, this book is so passionately one-eyed, and so flawed, that Griffiths fails to convince overall – and this is a pity.

To begin with, despite identifying what Western kids lack – such as secure attachment, a big tribe, and rites of passage – Griffiths offers few practical suggestions as how to get these things into kids’ lives. How do we make parenting easier so that parents have the emotional capacity to forge deep strong attachments to their children? How do we balance the needs of parents with the needs of children? How do we widen people’s perceptions of their role in the lives of other people’s kids, so that parents aren’t required to fulfil all the adult roles in a child’s life? In a post-church society, who develops and conducts rites of passage? And so on. These questions are all raised by the text; yet Griffiths offers no solutions, and it is simply not helpful to identify what is needed (and indeed to criticise harshly how we parents, of which Griffiths does not appear to be one, do it wrong), but to offer no suggestions for change. It is left to the reader to imagine what could be and then put it into place – and yet many of the necessary structures are almost impossible to tackle family by family: they require cultural change.

For example, to take the example of a tribe, it took nine years of talking and parenting before we found a family who was genuinely interested in and able to live in the same street as us, and, more than that, willing to get involved in our kids’ lives in ways that eased the pressure on our child-parent relationship. Griffiths writes rather breathlessly that, in one tribe, parents never discipline their own children; that is left to others so that the affection of the parent-child relationship is never damaged. That sounds bloody wonderful, but it would require a seismic shift in how we as a society take responsibility for other people’s children for it to be even remotely possible here.

Another weakness of the book is how Griffiths glosses over the hardships of life for indigenous children. Sure, traditional ways of childhood sound great for those who survive, especially boys: roaming, hunting, fishing, and untold freedom for kids. But traditional ways also involve high infant mortality, infanticide when the rains don’t come or too many girls have been born, the ‘betrayal’ (as it’s described in the book by a young victim) of female genital mutilation, the sexual trade of young girls to forge connections or strengthen associations between tribes, social controls which require high levels of conformity, even child sacrifice for religious purposes. In over 350 pages of praising indigenous childcare practices and criticising ours, Giffiths devotes a scant couple of pages to listing some of the downsides of being an indigenous kid, and offers no explanation or justification for these less than happy practices. This is deeply unsatisfactory, and feels unfair. At least kids in the West get to live when the rains don’t come; most Western girls don’t have their genitals hacked off with rusty razor blades; and the sexual trade in young girls is looked upon as an aberration and a crime. For these aspects of the Western approach to childhood, I am grateful.

Because I have never lived with an indigenous tribe, I find it hard to judge the veracity of Griffiths’ account of indigenous lives. Even so, I found myself questioning it. For example, in one place Griffiths writes that after spending an afternoon with over a hundred indigenous kids, she realised that she hadn’t once heard a kid cry, and that she couldn’t imagine the same situation with Western kids. Having just spent three weeks of the school holidays with two different tribes of kids, aged between 6 months and 15 years, I can vouch that even Western kids rarely cry when they’re running around in a pack. They get busy, and work things out; and so I’m not convinced that this lack of crying is a unique feature of indigenous life.

To the contrary, in fact. One of my friends lived for two years in an indigenous village in Papua New Guinea. When she returned, she told me that one thing she will always remember is the crying. It formed the constant soundscape; she said she could not remember a time when she couldn’t hear a child crying, and that coming back to Australia was a great relief from this point of view. Was this village, eight hours’ travel by small boat from Rabaul, ‘less indigenous’ than the people visited by Griffiths? Or, in her visits with indigenous people, did Griffiths excise weeping children from her experience and hear only what she wanted to hear? I have no way of knowing, but I am sceptical that the lives of indigenous children following traditional ways of life are always so blissful. (As for the lives of indigenous kids whose traditional ways of life are being torn to shreds, that is, most of them, I weep.)

This blanket enthusiasm for indigenous practices coupled with a blanket criticism of Western practices grates; and it also leads to ridiculous inconsistencies. Griffiths is scathing of the way Western children are penned up indoors, locked away from the wild spaces that they need for their development. Yet in a chapter devoted to the importance of imagination and metaphor, Griffiths writes positively about the Kogi people in Colombia, who identify a boy as a future spiritual leader. This infant is taken from his mother, and shut in a dim cave for the first nine years of his life; his only exposure to the wider world is through the stories told to him. After nine years, he emerges as a spiritual leader (or, I suspect, completely mad). Of this practice, Griffiths admits only that some Westerners may feel ‘ambivalence’. Horror is more like it. One is left with the impression that it’s not okay for Western kids to be inside playing the piano, learning to cook, reading faerie stories, building cubbies, or playing hide-and-seek; but an indigenous kid can be locked away in a dark cave for nine years. Oh, please! Clearly, this is absurd; yet Griffiths seems cheerfully oblivious to both the brutality of some indigenous practices and the inconsistencies within her text which lead her to condemn in the West that which she extols in other cultures.

Griffiths also suffers from the hopeless sentimentality towards children that one sees in non-parents from time to time. As a parent, I do find it helpful to be reminded to let my kids take risks, to get them outside, to let them have their privacy and secret spaces and special dens. I like being a little breathless about the idea of childhood, and I know that when we relax our family culture, everyone is happier and more cheerful. But I also know just how much of childhood is about shit and sex and fighting and greed and fear, not only in my own children or the children I spend time with, but in my memories of childhood; and it seems that there is little room in Griffiths’ worldview for such normal kids. Not all kids are large-spirited hearty adventurers or passionate artists. Griffiths seems to be unaware of the variations in personality which are found, I suspect, across all cultural styles.

Her one-eyed view also means that Griffiths fails to see the opportunities for wildness and secret places that city children find: on the subway, up the fire stairs, under the stoop, in a cubby, or in the branches of a tree at the local park. Not every wild space or secret den needs to be a rural idyll. She seems to miss the ways city kids lose and construct themselves, and make little nets of privacy, not just in folk tales but in music and dance and sport, and dreaming in the back seat of the car. Her unabashed primitivism lacks subtlety; and there is so much good about being a Western kid that I find it hard to perceive the crisis of childhood to which she constantly alludes.

So I have lots of issues with the book; still, I recommend it. Griffiths’ observations about what makes kids thrive are good sense, overall; and the great exuberant eloquence of her writing is such a delight, such a gift, that I am prepared to forgive very many of the flaws. Cat-shadows in beetroot patches will win me over, every time.

‘Obedience is deadly, will is divine and the vital wildness of the human spirit is purring, over there, like a cat-shadow in the beetroot patch.’


PS: If you’re not really up for a long, loquacious, one-eyed, deeply flawed rant – though why not, I can’t imagine! – but you still want to think about how to parent generously, I’d recommend Hodgkinson’s utilitarian The Idle Parent. My longer response to it is here, but, in short, it advocates freedom and choice; is packed with suggestions for ways to maximise love and affection and minimise the rage and frustration of parenting; and urges parents to seek ways of making family life fun. It’s intelligent, enjoyable, good-humoured and opinionated, and lacks only cat-shadows and beetroot patches. And who has a beetroot patch, anyway? The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids