Review: Bernard Cohen’s The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies

For Newtown Review of Books:

Typically, reviews begin with a snippet from the book in question or with a short description of the work and its main concerns. In form and content, Bernard Cohen’s The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies resists both such openings. Part novel and part exegetical commentary, this satirical and inventive book is many things at once: fictional and critical, factual and fantastical, anxious and passionate, funny and searching, disjointed and odd.

Taken purely on plot, the story is farcical. Recalled from the doldrums of Australian history by the new government of John Howard in 1996, former prime minister Robert F (but not G) Menzies appears in Canberra as a spectral force: ever-present but never quite in focus for press gallery or public. At first listened to by the new government, Menzies soon becomes a mere prop for photo-ops and is eventually banished from the stage entirely. Alienated, he takes to the bush, traversing an Australia he both does and does not recognise. But Menzies’ reappearance has not gone unnoticed. Years past deadline for a biography of the former prime minister, the self-involved ‘Bernard Cohen’ instead spirals into writing something else altogether: an ‘antibiography’ that leads him into fabricated identities, endless subterfuges to distract his publisher, and increasingly bizarre quests for evidence of the ghostly Menzies.

Continue reading at Newtown Review of Books.

Kill Your Darlings: How Should a City be?

I’m super pleased to have this essay published in Killing Darlings No. 17, alongside some very talented writers. You’ll have to pay for a copy of the journal to read the full essay, but here is a very short preview:

Nelson Mandela died last night and Durban fell quiet. This morning in Warwick Junction, a patchwork of markets jostling against the CBD, the quiet has given way to work. Traders sell neatly arranged punnets of tomatoes and barrowmen push carts stacked with produce. Bead sellers sit beside their wares, threading small glass beads into intricate patterns. Women polish balls of lime clay so they glow white.

On television and online, Mandela’s death is sweeping across the world. Here in Durban, no businesses are closed, no crowds have yet gathered to mourn. Customers and traders exchange sad shakes of the head and murmur words of loss.

Grief is deep but life presses on.

South Africa has come a long way in the last twenty years, but still has far to go. Part of the nation’s future progress will rely on how it builds its cities, in part because those cities still bear apartheid scars. Politically and socially much has changed, but the very fabric of cities such as Durban must change too. A new Durban is emerging, but what should it look like? How will it work? And for whom?


Subscribe to KYD or buy a copy of #17 here.

Review: Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files

For Newtown Review of Books:

No one knew who Edward Snowden was in May 2013 when he scraped 1.7 million classified documents from the National Security Agency from his post as a civilian contractor in Hawaii. By the end of June he would be the most wanted man in the world, having rocked the national security establishment of the United States to the core by revealing the mass surveillance of foreign nationals, world leaders, and, perhaps most damaging of all, American citizens.

Now, in early 2014, the documents he stole continue to feed news story after news story, even after Snowden himself has spent the last six months as a ‘guest’ of the Russian government. Yet these stories represent just the tip of Snowden’s iceberg, according to Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian and publisher of many of the surveillance revelations.

Luke Harding’s account of the Snowden story and its initial impact is thus timely, but also limited in its scope – it lacks the perspective that distance from the subject might offer. Fast-paced and journalistic in style, The Snowden Files offers a straightforward, accessible account of Snowden, the data he managed to ‘exfiltrate’ from the NSA, and the ‘epochal debate’ it engendered.

Continuing reading at the Newtown Review of Books.

Overland: A Fair Crack of the Whip?

Solomon Northup raises the whip and his stoic mask dissolves. The slave woman, Patsey shakes, body tied to the whipping post. Epps, the plantation owner, gives the order.

‘Strike her.’

The whip cracks, the girl shudders. The slave owner, his wife and their slaves watch. It cracks again, and again, and again.

‘He pantomimes,’ says his wife. ‘There’s hardly a welt on her.’

Epps holds a gun to Solomon’s head.

‘You will strike her until the flesh is rent,’ he says, ‘and meat and blood flow in equal measure, or I will kill every nigger in my sight.’

Now when the whip cracks its snap is muffled by tearing flesh, and screams rip the air. Later, when the slave women wash her, Patsey’s back is hardly recognisable – flesh is flayed into ragged strips.

Of the many brutalities depicted in the film 12 Years a Slave, the scenes of flogging testify perhaps most of all to the horrors of corporeal punishment.

In his 2011 book In Defense of Flogging, American criminologist Peter Moskos proposes offering a choice to those about to be incarcerated: serve your sentence, or receive a flogging. He argues that given both the deeply ingrained human desire to punish and the terrible suffering that occurs in prisons, almost any punishment is preferable to incarceration.

Unlike Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal, Moskos is not engaged in satire. As this article inThe Washington Monthly makes clear, he is serious: he believes flogging to be preferable to the present system of imprisonment. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, Moskos’s native United States is the explicit target for his proposal but last November he presented his thesis at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House in Sydney. A show of hands at the end of his talk said that many had been converted.

Finish reading this article at Overland.


Review: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

For The Newtown Review of Books:

Beside the funeral pyre of Australian soldiers killed by cholera, Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and leader of a camp of prisoners on the Thai-Burma railway, wants at first to burn the sketchbook of one of the dead men. One of his assistants in the camp hospital points to watercolours of atrocities, of torture, and of the everyday life of the camp. ‘Memory is the true justice,’ he says. Dorrigo disagrees:

We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting.

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an unflinching attempt to stave off that forgetting and, in doing so, to explore heroism, sacrifice, suffering, love, trauma, and memory. This is an ambitious order, and for the most part Flanagan is up to the task. There are passages of brutal beauty, where his flair for the sentence that rises from the muck into soaring poetry allows him to connect small moments to the larger forces of life history. Flanagan’s father was a prisoner-of-war in the Japanese camps, and that lived knowledge of the trauma carried by the surviving soldiers gives the novel its solidity.

[Read more at The Newtown Review of Books… ]

Review: Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

For The Newtown Review of Books:

To hold one of Thomas Pynchon’s novels unopened is to be on the cusp of near infinite possibility. There is a dizzying scope and a staggering technical virtuosity to much of his writing, a willingness to confront historical and technological immensities, revelling in the chaos that ensues. This visceral wildness is evident in the famous first lines of his 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow: ‘A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.’

Pynchon’s differing ambitions for Bleeding Edge are clear from its own opening: ‘It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school.’ Unlike the complex Gravity’s Rainbow (or most of his other works), its plot is fairly linear, its cast of characters manageable, and its geography largely contained to New York City. This is Pynchon for the uninitiated, or for fans who’d like to read him on holiday and still be relaxed. But it is far from a trifling work.

[Read more at The Newtown Review of Books … ]