My Favourite Books of 2015

I have a dear friend who likes to draw constant attention to my penchant for straight white male writers. Well, dear friend, you might like to note that on this list there are three books whose writers are not white, and one, at Number Three, not only written by a woman but about female companionship, motherhood, feminism!  Put that in your traditional Ghanaian Bugum and smoke it. 

Here are my favourite reads of 2015:

10. ‘House of Meetings’ (2006) by Martin Amis

This is the inevitable Amis Jnr. inclusion, pipping by a fair whack his overreaching ‘Night Train’ (1997). Some say this too overreaches, being, as it is, a kind of potted history of Russia’s most inhumane modern atrocities, as told by the usual Nabokovian monster with the usual compelling, always fancy prose style. But where some saw the author’s jocular cadence as a count against this (anglicized, pocket-sized) Russian epic, I found its tension with the subject matter aptly queasy-making, suitably magnetic. Undeniably weird and in questionable taste, but this is why I love Martin Amis.

9. ‘The Sellout’ (2015) by Paul Beatty

This year, more than any other I remember, a number of books I read as they were published, and this is just one of the four that made this list. Paul Beatty is an African-American satirist whose novels save no one, excoriate everyone, but focus most intently on the various conceptions of ‘blackness’ in modern-day America. There’s a pleasing audacity in Beatty’s framing the narrative as the extended reminiscence of a present-day slave-driver and school segregationist who finds himself in court – and who happens to be black. ‘The Sellout’ does what few of today’s satirical novels manage: it reads beautifully, provokes with a point, and actually makes you laugh.

8. ‘A Personal Matter’ (1964) by Kenzaburo Oe

On Jonathan Franzen’s recommendation, I read this incredibly honest Japanese novella recounting the scheming and self-flagellation of protagonist Bird after his son is born disabled. Oe’s own son was born disabled, and it’s amazing he could write about this subject matter with such unflinching candour and uncompromising humour. Goodness and compassion prevail in this parable, as has Kenzaburo’s with his son Hikari, who is now, though autistic, visually impaired and epileptic, a successful composer of chamber music. Kenzaburo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.

7. ‘Rabbit, Run’ (1960) by John Updike

This is one of the first serious novels I ever read, and my most lasting memory was one of dislike: not of the prose, which I knew had impressed me, but of Rabbit, the protagonist, whose unquenchable maleness had, without the face-saving irony of Portnoy, left me, like he does Ruth, with a bad taste in my mouth. But that’s just the point now, isn’t it, I’ve realised, and have learned to now appreciate the greater earnestness and Protestant ickiness of Updike’s best-loved work. Oh, and technically the writing is near-faultless: the whole reads seamless as a prose poem unbroken, and each of the images has that weird Updike touch of being alien and exact all at once.

6. ‘Welcome to Braggsville’ (2015) by T. Geronimo Johnson

See, friend? Another African-American! Few critics saw fit to compare this to ‘The Sellout’, even though we have here this year’s other venerated satire on race relations and black identity (one or the other, but rarely both if anywhere, appeared on many ‘Best of 2015’ lists). This is less poetic but deliberately so, using different registers and styles and dialects to embody different kinds of prejudice and avarice. And by addressing, within the story line, the legitimacy of irony in today’s age (in the best way I’ve seen done since David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction ruminations on the same) the laughs come harder and speak more deeply than they seem to do in Beatty’s work.

5. ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’ (1985) by William Gaddis

I AM A SCHOLAR OF WILLIAM GADDIS, having written a thesis on his first two mammoth novels, ‘The Recognitions’ (1955) and ‘JR’ (1975). These remain unconquerable, but ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’, a bleak burlesque on American religion, world conquest and global finance, is still a brilliant book, made up of sentences which, though garbled, sans proper grammar and relentlessly unwinding, hypnotise the reader with their comedy and poetry, as art reconstituted from a logjam of jargon, legalese, business-speak and jingoism. Read this if you want to read a genius turning our late capitalist loghorrea into powerful literature.

4. ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ (1983) by Philip Roth

I’ll make no apologies for this: Philip Roth speaks to me very directly, and this, the third installment in the Zuckerman trilogy, has risen to be one of my favourites. I feel a great affinity with most Roth protagonists, but Zuckerman in this book is me this year: struggling to write, suffering back pain, and even more aggressively on everybody’s nerves. I love Roth when he’s this antagonistic.

3. ‘After Birth’ (2015) by Elisa Albert

And speaking of whom… I also adored this book, whose author has admitted she was going for a mixture of “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Roth circa 1973.” It’s a dazzling and highly appropriate combination for tackling motherhood and post-natal depression, themes which are deserving of this kind of bruising treatment. The anger and confusion are so palpable in this, so breakneck in places there’s no pause for punctuation, and the voice so vivid, unforgiving and hilarious I can feel it buzzing through my head long after having read it. It’s so nice to read a woman assert her womanhood by tearing up taboos and the tropes of feminism.

2. ‘Purity’ (2015) by Jonathan Franzen

I’m done with my half-hearted dismissal of Franzen and back in the fold with this, his latest novel, which, unlike the overly po-faced ‘Freedom’ (2010), finds him doing what he does so well: the human comedy. The passage on Tom’s marriage, based in part on Franzen’s own experience, strikes that tremulous balance, somehow, between proper heartbreak and deep hilarity, and the rest is entirely engrossing, too, darting as it does between continents and characters, from discourse on the internet and forays into feminism. It is extremely heartening to read new fiction whose profundity and thoughtfulness account for its popularity; it stands as a testament to Franzen’s dictum that good fiction makes us feel less alone. 

1. (The Rest of) ‘The Patrick Melrose Novels’ (1992-2012) by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St Aubyn is my new favourite writer, because despite being raped as a child by his father and the consequently raging drug dependency that lasted throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, he managed to create these five brilliant comedies: ‘Never Mind’ (which I read last year), ‘Bad News’ (these both 1992), ‘Some Hope’ (1994), ‘Mother’s Milk’ (2005) and ‘At Last’ (2011). That he wrote them is one thing, commendable enough, but that they actually concern his own survival while remaining both so funny and emotionally true has to rate as something superhuman. Read these novels.

Well there it is, folks. Let’s just hope Lynne Tillman doesn’t call this one “depressing.”


A Celebration of Robin Thicke’s ‘Paula’

Robin Thicke: here is a man with absolute and invincible confidence in himself. We have laughed and cried with him on his journey: laughed when, in the infamous ‘Blurred Lines’ clip, he showed men everywhere that feelings of sexual inadequacy could be addressed with more than one kind of inflatable device; cried, of course, when he was photographed fondling a backstage basket-bearer at some asinine awards ceremony or other, his hand caught unawares in the tawdry glare of a panoramic make-up mirror. In light of all this, there was much making up to be done to his long-suffering wife, ‘Paula Patton’, and this was the impetus to what would become a classic in the pantheon of pop break-up albums. I speak, of course, of the masterwork ‘Paula’.

So here it is: to celebrate the seven-month anniversary of Robin Thicke’s searing, embarrassing 14-track travesty, I give you this song-by-song autopsy, undeterred by my having not listened nor having any wish to ever listen to the album:

TRACK ONE: “You’re my Fantasy”. Lovely work on this. Over a bossa nova backing, Robin describes his ‘naughty fantasy’ of being caught by his wife in the act of fondling a promo girl, and then apologizes profusely in a wheedling arcipello: “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.”

TRACK TWO: “Get Her Back”. In which Robin goes into intricate detail about his plans to seek revenge on the promo girl. The line, “‘Cause you’re a baaad giiiiirl” is a little derivative, but the looping in the background of Robin’s own grunts as he worms, like the invertebrate he is, into a pair of his seediest vinyl pants is a musical masterstroke.

TRACK THREE: “Still Madly Crazy”. To the accompaniment of a cracked and caterwauling harpsichord, Robin does, with what few resources he has, his best to explain the mentality of someone who thinks that his appendage is paid best homage in a series of helium balloons.

TRACK FOUR: “Lock the Door”. A charming reminiscence this, wherein Robin recalls his favorite reprimand of Paula: due to the depression brought on by living with her husband, Paula was beginning to forget to do the little things like eat, breathe properly and, yes, lock the door. In this, safety-conscious Robin, understandably wary of the possibility of being stabbed or shot in his home, laments the times he used to chide his increasingly dyspeptic wife.

TRACK FIVE: “Whatever I Want”. Having gotten nowhere with Paula thus far, Robin falls back on his ploy of old, screaming, “GIVE ME WHATEVER I WANT!!!!!!!!!!!!!” until the seat of his pants blows spontaneously open. Haunting.

TRACK SIX: “Living in New York City”. To the syncopated jangles of a chain-gang, Robin gives us a tour of his favorite NY soup kitchens. Favorite line: “Come on, baby, do it louder; they give you bread here with your chowder.”

TRACK SEVEN: “Love Can Grow Back”. In which Robin valiantly attempts to liken his love for Paula with a fungal infection. Nowhere are we given a better insight into Mr. Thicke than on this splendid piece of shit.

TRACK EIGHT: “Black Tar Cloud”. The worst title of any song ever conceived.

TRACK NINE: “Too Little Too Late”. A deft piece of meta-music: a chink opens in the black tar cloud of Robin’s self-delusion and he sees, finally, by some wondrous miracle, the futility of his attempt with this execrable album to redeem himself to Paula and his public. Special props to Miley Cyrus for her guest appearance: there’s some gurgling about her ‘private space’, ‘poor career choices’ and ‘public disgrace’, then a prolonged and powerful guttural moan. Great stuff.

TRACKS TEN to FOURTEEN: all of these are lo-fi, gritty spoken word. Robin talks about how he has a lucky forehead, and gives a brief lecture at the end of the album about how the Grand Comeuppance will last eighteen days and leave only him and his loved one…


A Recount of the Journey to Asia I Never Talk About. Part Three.

I suppose, on reflection, the vomit was a cry for help. There I was, slumped in some foot pedestrian’s offshoot, some blankly white-walled corridor, covered in uncooked hot pot. I made my way back to the MegaPlex.

They installed me, did Herman and his family (his rangy dad, his twinkly grandma, and the heretofore unintroduced Edgar, Herman’s younger brother) between the duvet and the body-length yoga mat intended to act as a mattress. From this vantage, I had a supremo view of the concrete embankment that filled the window. I could also, luckily, see the TV. I watched ‘Bridesmaids’, wincing in sympathy as Maya Rudolph shat, caught short, on a city road; and later, on waking from a fever dream crammed-to-bursting with cryogenic meat, I was apprehended by the goading spectacle of the New Year’s fireworks over Hong Kong. On the third day, probably, I started to panic. I demanded that grandma bring me the phone.

Herman’s grandma was herself a firecracker. Probably 100, she looked about 50, and was endlessly amused by her effusion of jokes, all of which she spoke in a lilting Mandarin and, I assume, had me as their inspiration. By now it had become apparent, though, as my body tried futilely to expunge the hot pot poison, that I was no longer only the butt of grandma’s jokes but the butt of my stomach’s, the butt of my butt’s. It was with some clammy impatience, therefore, that I snatched the phone from grandma’s hand.

“Hi Mum, Hi Dad – I need to come home. Or fly onto Europe and meet up with…” It’s here that I’m struck with the difficulty of giving my ex-girlfriend a name (which, admittedly, isn’t my only difficulty in writing about her). “Petunia,” I said, or rather settled with.

On hearing this, my parents were nonplussed. “But David, you can’t just up and take your dribbly arse to Dusseldorf or whatever snow-kissed ski lodge it is that Petunia’s uncle runs,” they said, or I’m recalling through my own retrospective frustration.

It was at this pivotal juncture that grandma, having taken leave, returned. Ever the helper, she bore on a platter what looked like a large dirt clot. She made some gestures toward her mouth before striding agelessly out the door. “I’ll call you back,” I said, and hung up.

The duvet pulled around my ears and homesick tears pooled in my eyes, I tried to size up what looked more and more like what I’d heard described in high school as a “grogan”. There it sat, turgid, unperturbed – to all appearances, I’d been given a turd. I picked up the knife and made my first incision.

It was an unpeeled sweet potato.

“Sweet mercy,” I muttered, and commenced a rocking which only the reckless cab drive to the doctor’s impeded, busy as I was being rocketed from side to side on the backseat, sans seatbelt. There was a screech of brakes and of driver’s instructions, and soon I was being spirited by Herman (holding my elbow? I want to imagine he was holding my elbow) down one of Hong Kong’s many luridly neon-lit strips and past all number of street food nasties: algae-tinted tanks filled with bottom-feeders, fun-fair stalls festooned with entrails. The medical centre itself was set between chicken’s feet and the balls of a sparrow.

It looked like the kind of place you’d visit to get diseases. Herman dragged me up to a little window where a sallow nurse threw clipped English at me. “And what is the nature of your stay?” she asked, and I was going to write that I drawled “Horrific”, but my dialogue has probably stretched enough credibility.


My Favourite Books of 2014

I have to say, people: this year has been a real s.o.b. in a lot of ways, but not where my reading has been concerned. I’m usually very secretive about the books that make an impression on me – it’s all to do with what an unnerving number of people have recently labelled my self-centeredness – but today, in the (ever-expanding) seat of the Season of Goodwill (and eating; I mean seriously, you should see me: this is G-force engorgement over here), I would like to share, in the spirit of giving, ten books that I loved this 2014:

10. ‘U & I’ (1991) by Nicholson Baker

In essence an extended essay, but what with its enlarged font, its binding and its going-price of $19.99, it earns its place on this list. Here, Nicholson Baker, a fairly obscure American writer with a score of experimental novels under his belt, comes head-to-head with his literary hero, the twinkly then-elder but now-late statesman of U.S. letters, John Updike. For the avid reader or fervent writer there is much to relate to in Baker’s bacchanal-cum-stream-of-consciousness crisis-of-confidence, not the least of which is the reassurance that even published writers, those envied accomplished, can be plagued by the feeling that they’re just not good enough.

9. ‘Double Fault’ (1997) by Lionel Shriver

I was reading this when I had it signed by the author, Lionel Shriver, who has written two of my favourite novels: ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and ‘So Much for That’. She seemed surprised to have been handed it. “Have you read this?” she asked me with the ominous wryness which infuses both her speech and prose. I told her I was halfway through and, after signing it, she seemed to be almost tentative in handing it back. “Pay close attention,” she said, or something like it, “this is a cautionary tale.” And is it ever.

8. ‘Never Mind’ (1992) by Edward St. Aubyn

St. Aubyn has done something really strange here: recast his experience of the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his monstrous father as a scabrously dark comedy-of-social-manners, like Evelyn Waugh by way of ‘The Lovely Bones’. His finest achievement with this book – the first in a quintet which spans the life of St. Aubyn’s alter ego, Patrick Melrose, from traumatizing childhood to fledgling fatherhood – is not just the genuine hilarity of the mannered prose as it grapples with these ill-mannered (or, in the case of the father, outright amoral) toffs, dandies and debutantes, but that the prose and the humor spring so easily from the characters’ pettiness and avarice – and how, by stark contrast, young Patrick’s experience is conveyed with sobriety and terrible sadness.

7. ‘Lolita’ (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov

After many false starts trying to read this book – I hate Humbert Humbert, as well as abhor how the novel’s now packaged, with its prim pink borders, like an Austen romance: he’s a paedophile, damn it – I have to concede that I’m glad to have read it, if only to be able to see its influence on American literature post-the 1950s. Turns out it’s considerable.

6. ‘The Magic Kingdom’ (1986) by Stanley Elkin

It might just as well have been the other Elkin book I read this year, ‘The Dick Gibson Show’, in sixth place: both have bursts of the outright hilarious and both are outlandishly verbally dexterous. But this has a stronger pathos underpinning it, being, as it is, about a father who, after his terminally ill son passes on, arranges to chaperone a group of sickly tykes on an overseas excursion to Disneyland. The sentences are long and labyrinthine and set-pieces inspired – the scene in which a disgruntled actor dressed as Pluto threatens, ineffectually, the coterie of kids in a clandestine hotel room is a brilliant flight of fancy, sublime comic writing – but what makes the novel as a whole even better is the fact that it stands as a testament (as does ‘Never Mind’) to literature’s power to restore and transcend: Elkin himself was suffering from M.S., but produced, from his experience, this masterpiece.

5. ‘The Old Devils’ (1986) by Kingsley Amis

Being such an ardent fan of Kingsley’s son, Martin, it was inevitable that I would acquaint myself with this, Amis Snr’s late musing on the indiscriminate ravages of time. This is a lovely, wistful and leisurely-paced book, but shot through, too, with the satirist’s disdain, and these tones sit in such perfect harmony that it’s something of a wonder; unprecedented, really. I read it because I’d read ‘Lucky Jim’ and liked it a lot, but more specifically because Martin had averred in his memoir, ‘Experience’ – perhaps not quite impartially – that it “stands comparison with any English novel of the [twentieth] century”. I can’t speak for that, but this story of a famous poet who returns to Wales, its rolling hills and his now-rotund friends, is so humane, funny and finely-observed, it might be that Martin is right.

4. ‘A Fan’s Notes’ (1968) by Frederick Exley

An unflinching portrayal of an depressive-alcoholic’s unstinting battle with his self-destructive streak, this book is even more remarkable for being, by all reports, a thinly-fictionalized autobiography. That Exley survived at all is an impressive feat, but that he wrote this book – in such limpid prose and with such saving self-deprecation – is nothing short of an act of heroism. Exley is something of a cult icon now, and his legend is entirely understandable.

3. ‘1982, Janine’ (1984) by Alasdair Gray

This novel charts the mind-patterns of a severely depressed man as he lies in a hotel cot somewhere in Scotland, and it is blissfully insane, incandescent, inconsolable. At one point our not entirely likable hero chooses to overdose on booze and pills, and Gray, ingenious typographer he is, splits the man’s experience into two wavering columns – one for his body, one for his mind – and, in a struggling, fine-print margin, has God try to reason with His gasping charge. These three pages alone are exhilarating, but then Gray goes into heartbreaking, traditional detail as to how the man got to where he is. This is just the best kind of experimental fiction: one in which the innovation, rather than come to the detriment of feeling, acts instead to enhance it. Brilliant.

2. ‘The Zone of Interest’ (2014) by Martin Amis

I’ll readily admit: I obsessed over this book. I read pretty much every review and opinion piece about it pre-, mid- and post-my reading it, and took, moreover, my sweet time doing so, all the while reveling in those Martin Amis standards: his eccentricity, sheer wit and incantatory style. Having heard almost exclusively good things, I had hoped that this would be Martin’s chance at winning the Booker, coming as it did after a stretch of ignominy comparable to his father’s before his ‘The Old Devils’ took out the much-touted prize. No dice: Martin Amis has always been divisive, and no doubt the book’s conceit – put crudely, a “Nazi love story” – did nothing to endear him to the non-aficionado. But a book like this lives or dies on its risks, and this one thrives in its three distinct voices: that of the nephew of the secretary to Hitler, that of the spineless camp commandant, and that – in spare and somber tones – of the Sonder, a Jew recruited to dispose of the bodies of his fellow Jews (tragically, a role that actually existed). Martin Amis has always been a keen purveyor of the comedy of self-delusion, but here he has addressed his talents to the mass delusion responsible for an awful atrocity, and the result is of a work of mad genius.

1. ‘Something Happened’ (1974) by Joseph Heller

Thirteen years after writing the seminal anti-war novel, ‘Catch-22’ (which – full disclosure – I haven’t read), Heller wrote this, an almost-600-page wail from a chronically disaffected business and family man. This book is incredible for its multi-faceted audacity: it’s the soliloquy of the stultified, self-centered Bob Slocum, wherein nothing, besides his neuroses, happens – until, with the deftest and darkest of ironies, something suddenly does – and all of it unspools in repetitive but perfect sentences, increasingly broken, sometimes for pages, with asides which delve further into Slocum’s insecurities. But this book is so honest, so beautifully constructed, that it actually burrows straight into your brain. A brilliant and haunting work.

A Recount of the Journey to Asia I Never Talk About. Part One.

There’s something I have been repressing for, oh, roughly three years now. It’s a trip I took, and no leisurely idle in the outlying countryside, no quick jaunt down the coast. It was, in fact, an epic in a lot of senses, and given its proportions, psycho-spiritual heft, its insistence that it not be left alone, it’s strange that only now can I even conceive of attempting to put it into writing.

So imagine, if you will, yours truly at 24 (fresh-faced, pink-cheeked; unspeakably young) and bolt upright in my chair on a juddering Malaysian Airlines flight to Hong Kong. What was I thinking? Thoughts consistent with complete incomprehension at the nature of my trip and my intentions behind it. What had I been drinking? Initially nothing, but on arrival at Kuala Lumpur I discovered what, exactly, a rest lounge is: a tricked-out grotto or bistro lined like a manicurist’s with deep-seat armchairs, a procession of Sizzler-like, sneeze-guarded food bays, and, at its end, a gold-plated beer tap, in whose sheen might have been foreseen the nature of the trip to follow. I took a few pulls on its pump, let me tell you, and soon I was ensconced in a plush recliner and a neatly accumulating beer-buzz.

And then, for the remainder of the seven hours, I contorted and corkscrewed in that plush recliner while the booze sat immovably inside my gut, made foundations, set up shop. A bakery had started business; my legs would no doubt soon fly apart and I’d deliver, with a ding!, a fresh loaf there. What’s worse was that my neighbours, Malaysian families mostly, were dissipating, making off for their flights, and I soon felt – with all those brass fixtures, the decorous drapes, their maroon festoons – like I had just wrapped up a late-night bender and was loitering, now, in a hotel foyer. By the time I found myself boarding my flight, my head was carrying too much weight. My head was overhead baggage.

What followed was a shorter flight to Hong Kong, marked by a meal of tin-foiled fish whose spices wreaked havoc with my booze fugue. I believe my seat was the only one lit up, my head the only one bolt upright among the slumbering forms of my fellow passengers.

Herman, an old friend from high school, was waiting intently at the cavernous airport, and before I’d had time to acclimatize at all I had been spirited away, my luggage in tow, to a precarious double-decker bus. Here, while the scrubby, rocky scenery through the window gave intermittent way to sweeping sea vistas, Herman struggled to enliven in me any of the bright conviviality I’d given him back home. And wasn’t I convivial. We’d properly struck up our friendship after high school, and over the year before he left for Hong Kong we had laughed and sort of basked in the effusive, Edenic decency each of us never failed to bring out in the other. I was just so fucking nice with Herman. But now, because of my restless rest lounge stay, my ill-advised beers, and those claustrophobic stretches of airborne insomnia, I was finding it impossible to muster more than a pointed and unfair irritability whose target was going to be Herman.

As the bus sped across the sun-bleached expanse of a unrelenting suspension bridge, I cast my eyes out over the yawning bay below and took in, as best as I could manage in my dolorous state, the monolithic cranes or scaffolding or stations that rose, like a robot uprising, on stanchions that sat in the sea. This sight, let me tell you, was doing nothing for my inchoate sense of displacement. Herman was talking about something or other, but from where I sat – wedged right up against him – it came across as nothing but the gnashing of teeth. My beers were now a stone or a rocky outcrop, some immovable nexus in my solar plexus, and on entering the chaos of the city proper it began to palpate like some shitty, unbidden heart transplant. BUT THIS WAS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT HAPPENED TO ME NEXT…

Would you like to find out what happened to me next? Maybe not, but I will write it regardless.

An Extract from the First Chapter of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’

What follows is an unofficial leak of the very first parts of Franzen’s ‘Purity’. Behold how our Great American Novelist works magical realism in with his social commentary, all the while retaining his personal probity:

It was autumn, and Purity was feeling that unambiguous melancholy at the base of her neck. Yes, she knew of its heritage: how her Yale professor father had sired three daughters with a predisposition to be down-at-the-mouth. But what none of the Smerthson family knew, including, for the moment, she herself, was that Purity possessed a sort of superpower: the power of complete transcendence over mood.

Purity had, as it so happened, been recently embroiled in the Enron scam, this being the autumn of 2001. She and her notably effeminate husband, a slight-of-build, begrudging young tech-head, had both been shown the door the day previous and currently sat at a breakfast table of marmalade jam and toast.
“Purity,” said her husband, Egwitt, while squinting in her general direction, “but why do have that simpleton’s simpering look of elation all over your face?”
“Because…,” and Purity paused. She didn’t know it, but was on the precipice of discovering her true ability and strength. Egwitt was displeased by what he heard next: “I’m happy because Enron was America, dear, and America is rotten through. We are all complicit in an unjust war; our art is no more than a mass commodity; our politicians lie and do it badly and still, as a people, we do not care. Why, Egwitt,” she said, redoubling her napkin, “we don’t even know what truth is anymore. And you’re as much America as Enron is.”


Bad Jobs: A Reflection

In the light of my recent ill-advised return to retail, I’ve decided to write a potted history of some of the lesser jobs I’ve had in my time here on this Earth. It is incumbent on me to leave names unnamed:

KFC: here my job was to powder the chicken in the secret seven herbs and spices (which came packaged in sachets the size of airplane pillows), toss the goose-pimply limbs, wings and chests around in a basin filled with the stuff, then stick this chicken in a big old cage, which sight wouldn’t look out of place in a gallery (“Birdcage”, perhaps, an activist’s piece), all this preparatory to the meat’s descent into the purgatory of the oil vat. Lifting the cage on the end of a metal reed did absolute wonders for my back at the time, and THESE DAYS I CAN HARDLY WALK. I spent two years in that sweltering hell-hole, but left behind me a reputation for the slowest clean-ups and the worst-looking chicken that KFC had ever seen.

A NOW-DEFUNCT BOOKSTORE: this was my first experience lugging boxes, but here most of my work was confined to an office the size and the pallor of a hospital corridor. I was presided over by the woman who, in the time between hiring and having me work there, had obviously had her regrets. (Potentially at the inductees’ Getting-to-Know-You Do. Somebody had had the excellent idea of flashing, I think, letters onto a screen and each time having a newbie stand and say he was *adjective* starting with that letter. My turn came, so I stood up and said, “Hi, I’m David, and I do get cramps.”) I never did quite get to the bottom of how I could be fucking up carrying and opening boxes, but whatever it was – was it my resting bitch-face? – was thoroughly souring my supervisor. I saved her the effort and fired myself.

AN INTERNSHIP ON A SINKING SHIP: this one’s weird. For a week I had applied for all number of internships in the realm of writing, but when I eventually did get an offer it came from somewhere with a name I had never seen before. Indeed, I was still entirely clueless as I sat answering questions in the interview. Why did I think I suited the role? “But please, this is my field of expertise, m’am.” Was I ready for the challenges the position posed? “Why, I couldn’t be readier.” The interrogation took place in a wood-panelled air hanger, which probably didn’t help. Unhelpful, too, was the fact that my interrogator was an imposing one, a woman with a kind of hatchet beauty, a slab-like brow but chiseled cheeks and, between these, a penetrating pair of peepers. I got the job, and over its course she matched this terror-inducing appearance with an equally formidable temperament. I remember on my first day, knowing no better, I took the elevator up to the same place my interview had been held, walked past the walls emblazoned with yet another mysterious name, and asked the timorous woman behind the desk, itself emblazoned, where to wait for my boss. A call came through the intercom and, after a secretive conference (all flaring eyes and cupped receiver), the secretary told me to leave the building. I was downstairs in a cafeteria, thumbs fumbling through a copy of ‘The Wasteland’, when my mobile lit up with a call. “Don’t ever do that again, do you hear me?” my boss shrieked disbelievingly. She told me to meet her at a separate floor – that, perhaps, with the initial name, that under hers in her minimalist emails – and it was here that I, a younger Asian woman (whose way-of-living and speaking she’d gleaned exclusively from gold-bordered business books like ‘AWAKEN THE GIANT WITHIN’) and our commandant all piled into what was, at first glance, a hastily converted shoe cupboard. “Get me that copy!” she’d scream needlessly – being practically already in our ear – and Lee Ming and I would fall over each other scrambling for the sheet just emerged from the printer. “Now, you two need to go home and write some copy for the company,” she ended our first day with.

This company, judging from our boss’ apoplexy, and the occasional comment let slip through the cracks, was obviously going under. Over the next two days we would be called back, post-haste, from lunch breaks, inescapably privy to tragedy-charged phone calls between our boss and her doctor, and, at the close of both these days, promised a boozy lunch in the future. “Goodbye,” she said on my final day, suddenly all sun and light, wrapping her arm around some swarthy business shirt standing idly in the slipstream of the sidewalk, “goodbye,” and with her disappearance in the crowd, she was gone, forever, from my life.

She is, however, imminently Googleable. Her latest contribution is a wedding video, backed, somehow, by Vogue of all things. It features footage of her crouching and corralling tuxed and crinoline-frocked boys and girls and – though one can only judge from her gestures; a trumpet reveille blots everything out – telling them that it’ll be their heads if they go and fuck this up.

A NOW-DEFUNCT APPAREL RETAILERS: this started well enough. My interview was with a statuesque European who seemed genuinely impressed by my prattle. Soon, though, it became impossible to ignore that I really just did not give a shit about the clothes it was my strenuous task to impress on our unconvinced clientele. “Great your-grandfather’s-fly fishing-shirt,” was always on the tip of my tongue whenever some unprepossessing, mid-thirties father sidled gingerly up to a full-length mirror. It was during one of those post-apocalyptic, unpopulated stretches in time that my boss turned to me and, with disappointed eyes, said, “You’re much less impressive than your interview.” I did nothing to contradict this.


My Ten-Day Descent into Retail

There were so many red flags in those formative days it was like I was downhill skiing. The first was when, five minutes into the interview, I was gladly given the job. I had felt like saying, “But just moments ago, weren’t you telling me this gig – lugging boxes in a retailer’s warehouse in a shopping center (in other words, lugging boxes in a box in a box in a box) – has had one hundred applicants? And wasn’t there, while we descended the escalator to the food court, some furtive mention, over your shoulder, of a second interview, a second stage? But where have these hurdles gone? “Well, I never do this,” said ‘Maxxy’, “but I’m going to offer you the job right now.” I suppose that technically he wasn’t lying. Maxxy had never offered me a job before.

The second red flag came flapping into existence about a week later when I’d assumed my duties and was apprehended, like a shitting dog, squatting over a 20kg box by my flighty and potentially dangerous supervisor, avid traducer of co-box luggers and abuser of pharmaceuticals. This supervisor, ‘Terry Nobbins’, is a full-bred Yorkshireman, and often his utterances are as incomprehensible as redolent of malcontent. “AYE NOW,” said he, “YE BE AL-AWAYS WARY TA BE GETTING THAT DOOR,” is a kind translation of what he might have said, referring to the buzzer to the storeroom’s means of moving in and out our product. But this next sentence came through clear as a bell: “I don’t want another worker leaving this place and citing me as the reason.” With that, Terry Nobbins trailed off.

That first day, the only other guy rostered to work with me, ‘Charleton’, had called in sick, so the task of filling a smaller storeroom with merchandise, a two-man job, was left in my own callow hands. I got to work, and soon found myself surveying, from my precarious purchase on what looked very much like a plastic ladder, the cumbrous cargo I was meant to move down from a shelf about three metres high. At this vantage, the shelf looked about as high as my confidence in pulling off the task was not. The boxes were as good as rhinoceroses.

The room into which these wares were to be corralled is called, unaffectionately, The Room of Doom. This legend was written even on the tag that accompanied the key to The Room of Doom’s door. This door – and listen carefully now – can be reached only through the door whose buzzer Terry Nobbins had only just alerted me to. When buzzing, this door must be hastily opened. When not, this door must always, but always be shut.

Problem was, when I was ass-hauling these coffee-table-sized monstrosities through said door, no buzzer could light my way. I was up to pussy’s bow in organising the The Room of Doom – so named because its cinder-blocked, cell-like confinement induces, in even your seasoned boxadeer, keen thoughts of committing suicide – when Nobbins poked his druggy-eyed head inside to reiterate the importance of the door’s being shut when the buzzer wasn’t wheedling in your ear like a gnat. This I took in my stride, although fully aware that my routine trips with unweildy boxes would be rather impeded by my stopping always to stopper, with a smile, this infuriating passage.

But I’m nothing if not conscientious. Indeed, so good did I get at stopping and propping the latest Sphinx against the wall, shutting the door, turning and turning a key in the The Room of Doom’s door – which, as it turned out, needed also, when not being used, to remain closed – turning and hoisting Gargantua back onto my shoulder and moving it in, that Nobbins, his face unreadable but his intentions obvious, was soon gesturing for me to join him in quiet counsel. This was it. I was getting some recognition. I was getting the master’s approbation. “You need to remember to open the door when it buzzes,” he said, while a nearby deliveryman shook his head.

Things did not improve with the emergence of Charleton. I don’t know where you hail from, reader, but here in Sydney we have what is called the North Shore, and nested in the uppity North Shore’s breast is the epitome of the district’s insular elitism: the suburb they call St. Ives. (St. Ives is the patron saint of big ‘Lee’-brand T-shirt wearing law students whose faces are literal anathema). It was from here that Charleton no doubt drove his graduation present to work. He had a friend, a gangly cycling enthusiast and unwitting praying mantis impressionist, and this was the guy to whom Nobbins had alluded with his “don’ go leavun and citing me” plea. Together they were a sort of anti-comedy duo: all sinew, seal skin and ululating Ya Mum jokes.

Against this barrage of lols our increasingly sympathetic Yorkshireman’s punitive arsenal of yuks could not pass muster. His big gambit was a tap on the head with a rolled-up piece of paper. There I’d be, trying to figure out how I could keep the door both closed and open at the same time, when suddenly I felt the gentle tap, and I’d turn to see Nobbins, gigging away, his optics a riotous phamacopeia. I had no idea how to respond to this, so I went with an audible laugh.

But this is a bittersweet story, folks, because there was something in Nobbins – that impishness, an all-too-human gormlessness – that I was actually beginning to like, but which, on The Fateful Day I finally lost it, combined with my hatred of the job in general to cataclysmic effect. We’d had a tumultuous ride, Nobbins and I. We’d had much one-sided fisticuffs. We’d had a beer one day after work when I accidentally ran into him on the street. He had asked me to bend both time and space with his demands about the buzzered door. But above all, he had shown me, without making any concessions for my inexperience, how to do transfers and process the orders of some very pricey goods indeed. I suppose I was supposed to pick the processing up through some sort of idiot savant osmosis. I never did, and I never will.

I was standing on another plastic ladder, this time trying to lock a cage. While doing this, I was also expected to be processing transfers without further guidance. No, Nobbins would not oversee the transfers, but he would happily watch me lock a cage.

And I couldn’t. For the life of me, the key would not mesh. My body surged with a vertiginous anger. “C’mon mete,” I heard Nobbins say. But the key would still not lock.

Nobbins climbed the ladder and, in one fell swoop, the key had snagged and the cage had locked. “Don’t worry, mete,” he said, sealing our fate, “I’ll teach you ‘ow to use a key later.”

Terry Nobbins: it pains me to think of you mooning over your lonesome beer, your mind awash with the swirling conviction that yes, you’ve done it again. And the worst part is that you kind of did, you kind of are the reason I’m leaving. But it’s also Charleton who did it, and friend, and Maxxy; it’s also The Room of Doom.

And it’s me. I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for retail again.