Water From the Sun – by Bret Easton Ellis – From the collection: The Informers

Elise by Damien MorysThe age of a writer is a funny thing. Bret Easton Ellis blazed onto the scene at 21; certainly a tender age, one that branded him an enfant terrible and a writer capable of channelling the dark zeitgeist of the consumerist eighties. Even now, a writer in his forties, there seems to be an expectation on him to produce the same rebellious celebrations of shallow youth.

Reading Elllis’s collection, The Informers, reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. Both writers were young, intelligent men dissecting the lives of the wealthy around and above them. Ellis’s stories here are about young people with fast luxury cars, Betamax Video Recorders (hey, beta at one stage was cutting edge) and cocaine.  A decay is present too though, the characters of the stories are troubled and unhappy despite what their money (or their parent’s money in most cases) can bring.

My favourite story from the collection was Water From the Sun. It contrasts a middle aged woman to her young, toy boy lover. Cheryl is a late night news presenter. She has recently divorced from her husband, William and is seeing, Danny, a nineteen year old college student who lives off his rich father. The story starts after Danny finds his friend has been murdered by ‘a breakdancer at the Odyssey on the night of the Duran Duran look-alike contest.’ This seems to deal a blow to Danny that sees him estrange himself from Cheryl. Not that he seems ever to have offered the support that Cheryl needs.

Cheryl seems burnt-out. She keeps the phone off the hook so she won’t hear from her ex-husband. She wants a vacation from her news schedule, but her agent is powerless to organise her one. Eventually Danny goes, leaving a scribbled note in her apartment to let Cheryl know.

One thing that really appeals from Ellis’s work is the portrayal of Los Angeles and Hollywood as set in a desert. The mentions of tumbleweed, the scenes of driving through the dry terrain drive home the alienation of the people. His female characters often seem a victim of the glitz around them, as though it is binding them and dragging them down like quicksand.

I was impressed by the collection, just as I’m sure the critics were at the time, at the strength and maturity of his voice. A big thank you to my work colleague who let me the collection, I can see why Ellis is her favourite author.

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Posted by on November 2, 2011 in Ellis, Bret Easton


Pontoon Boat – by Garrison Keillor – from the collection: Leaving Home

I love the news from Lake Wobegon. Okay, every week seems to be a quiet week there, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot going on under the surface of the small town community. For those who aren’t familiar with the Lake Wobegon stories, they feature on Garrison Keillor’s radio variety program, A Prairie Home Companion which broadcasts on PBS radio. The stories revolve around a meek, god fearing community in Minnesota, whose people don’t like to show off and seem to get unhappy if everything is going their way. Basically, if you can understand what a Lutheran is, you have the key to Keillor’s Wobegon stories.

Keillor was a writer long before he was a popular presenter and his pieces read well on the page. I was lucky enough to be given the collections, Leaving Home and Life Among the Lutherans recently as a gift. I adore the Wobegon stories and have subsequently devoured both books. Keillor has a whole range of publications about Lake Wobegon though, including numerous novels. I had to pick one story to talk about, and I went with the one story that was duplicated in both collections. I know it’s a little show-offy to concentrate on the stand out story, and I’m not sure the citizens of Lake Wobegon would approve, but I settled on Pontoon Boat anyway.

Wally, the owner of the local bar, buys himself a pontoon boat to sail on the lake. He loves his boat but can’t show off to his patrons about it. He can only speak about how troublesome owning a boat is. However, he loves his boat and keeps inviting people out on the lake for boat rides. When Wally invites the mayor, Clint Bunson out, Clint remembers that a delegation of Lutheran ministers are coming to town and it would give them something to do to go out on the lake. The ministers arrive two months later, all 24 of them. The pontoon boat of course can’t comfortably hold 24 lutheran ministers, plus Wally and the mayor, but Wally doesn’t want to speak up and reveal himself as some type of ‘amateur sailor.’ So the overladen vessel sets out onto the lake, with the ministers politely crowded in the back. Of course, things go wrong, Fortunately the water is not deep. The story ends up with ‘Twenty four ministers, up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.’ Just wonderful.

Thanks to the power of the internet, I can link a Garrison Keillor story right here. If you have  a quiet moment, sit back and enjoy the news from lake Wobegon.


Posted by on October 21, 2011 in Uncategorized


Nut Ward Just East of Hollywood – by Charles Bukowski – from the collection: Tales of Ordinary Madness

kamakura ofuna japan by masaaki miyaraBukowski. The best description I’ve heard said about him was that he was the poet laureate of skid row. Nihilism and alcoholism mix with Los Angeles poverty. He has a kind of understanding in his work that he is in the gutter and deserves to be there. My favourite stories of his read like diary entries, which I am sure they are at least partially. He drew from his own life, barely disguising himself in his stories as Henry Chinaski. Nut Ward Just East of Hollywood is narrated by Chinaski, but at times his first person narration will speak to the reader as he was the writer of the piece, saying that he’s telling the story and he’s happy to jump the narrative around the place.

The story doesn’t tell much. Chinaski lives in a squalid apartment, he is visited by Mad Jimmy who seems to be reasonable enough (at least when your only point of reference is Chinaski). However Chinaski says that Jimmy is wanted in court for breaking his girlfriend’s rib in a domestic argument.  Jimmy freaks out but only to the extent of boring Chinaski, so Chinaski rings their mutual friend Izzy to move Jimmy along. Izzy arrives and kicks Jimmy out, but not before stealing his bottle of wine. Afterwards Chinaski and Izzy settle in to get drunk.

That’s the plot, if one had to pull some sort of narrative backbone out of the piece. But what happens really doesn’t matter. It is Bukowski’s descriptions of everyone and his eye for detail, along with insightful oddness which makes one keep turning the pages. Chinaski is given two garbage bins by his landlord, but it is still not enough to hold all his empty wine and beer bottles, so he has to smash the glass first in a wooden box the shape of a coffin in the middle of his lounge room. Only some of the glass always escapes and cuts up his feet. His doctor is an ex-Nazi with stories of being captured by the allies and having stinkbombs and used rubbers full of ant poison thrown at him.

Does this piece deserve to be considered fiction? Yes. I am not sure if all the events described happened to Bukowski in one night, or if they were separate incidents taken from over ten years and merged together. Characters may be composites, one person in the room could be real, while someone else might be joined together from five separate people. I am sure there is no adherence to an accurate retelling of events, but an attempt to catch the documentary feel of an occasion by stitching bits and pieces together. I am sure he winds up with something more truthful than any incident that actually happened.

Yes, Chanaski (Bukowski) is a sexist, an alcoholic and a low life. But he also reads voraciously and listens to classical music. One does not excuse the other. They are all ingredients that go into the mix. In great darkness sometimes one can find great beauty.

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Posted by on October 13, 2011 in Bukowski, Charles


Standing Ground – by Ursula K. Le Guin – collected in Unlocking the Air and Other Stories

rally for planned parenthood by FibonacciBlueWhen I first borrowed the collection Unlocking the Air and Other Stories from my local library, I didn’t realise that I had, in fact, read The EarthSea series by Le Guin as a child. I had found Unlocking by running a catalogue search for short story collections and hers was one of the few the library had which I hadn’t already read (note to self: find a new library). Though she may be noted for her science fiction/ fantasy work, the stories in the collection are reasonably grounded in the current day. The collection I read only drifted as far as magic realism, which, while quite fantastical, didn’t have any wizards.

The story that I went to first, Standing Ground, seems to have lodged in my mind the longest. It was originally written for Ms magazine, a publication I’ve never read but feel I ought to have. Now that I know they have short stories in it, I might be inclined to pick one up in the future (that is if it’s still around). Standing Ground doesn’t shy from controversy. It is the story of two women going past protesters to access an abortion clinic. At first we think that there is a mother daughter relationship between the younger and older woman, and there is, only it is the other way round. Delaware is the teenage daughter of Sharee, a mentally handicapped woman and it is Delaware, who is there to support her mother.

Despite her disability though, Sharee is clear that she does not want the pregnancy as it is the result of date rape. Sharee can clearly see the difference between her first, wanted pregnancy of Delaware, and with the current one, thinking of it as: ‘Mac had hurt her, cut her, made this wound inside her.’ Sharee seems to be able to view the abortion procedure with a clarity lacking to those around her.

The story also focuses on the protestors outside the clinic. Mary and Norman. Norman is old and doesn’t like the restrictions placed on him by the church’s organising body who say how the protest is to be conducted. Mary thinks that Norman is a fool, and is going to get them into trouble the way he swings his protest sign about. Both believe God is on their side, but Mary and Norman dislike each other personally. Their bickering seems to contrast with the solidarity inside the clinic.

Standing Ground is not propaganda, but no doubt, being published in Ms, it would have sympathies towards the one side of the argument. It looks more at the difficulties the issue raises in people’s lives. I don’t know if I am doing Le Guin justice here by speaking about a literary short story when she is more famous for science-fiction stories, but having read Standing Ground, I have thought about it often since and wanted to share my thoughts about it. The good thing about this blog though is I can return to an author in the future and look at some of their other work, so expect a Le Guin science fiction piece sometime in the near to medium distant future.  (At least before 2020, I promise you.)

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Posted by on October 1, 2011 in Uncategorized


Gazebo – By Raymond Carver – from the collection: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Next time I break up with someone i am accidentally (on purpose) going to take her Raymond Carver with me and not return any phone calls or text messages enquiring if I took it. I do have a best of Raymond Carver titled Where I’m Calling From, but people rave and rave about the collection: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Yes, the one that Gordon Lish took not so much as an Editorial scalpel but an editorial pick axe to. But the stories I have read from the collection are from other sublime planet.

Really in hindsight I should have dropped that copy my ex had into my boxes of books when I was moving out. Sure I could order myself a copy off Amazon, but I think the stories would have that extra little bit of edge if they were stolen after the break down of a relationship.

124-33 by pwbaker

124-33 by pwbaker

It is hard to single out a story from the collection that particularly stands out. The title story is not my favourite of Carver’s, I prefer the little known stories in the rest of the collection. Are they sketches? Were they once full stories that got pared back to the extent that they’re barely fit Joseph Campbell’s the hero’s journey anymore? A friend at work picked up my best of, when I had left it on my desk one day and read the a story out of it while I was away. When we next spoke, he described the work as akin to poetry. I guess poetry in the sense that it is saying so much more than the words on the page.

I like the story Gazebo. It is a story told in six moments. A lot of alcohol is involved. A man and woman arrange to manage a motel for the season. She makes the bookings, he does maintenance. But he begins to have an affair with one of the maids. The couple deteriorates. He stops doing the maintenance, she messes up the bookings. Guests refuse to stay. He thinks that they can get past it, but she knows they cannot.

I love music, and I look at wonderful collections, like I would look at my favourite albums, with the stories as tracks. To me, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love reminds me of one of my favourite David Bowie albums, Hunky Dorey. It may not seem like much on first glance, but has incredible depth. I have to be careful in case I read Carver so much that I wear a hole in the page with my eyes.

Oh yeah, and if you’re not familiar with the whole Gordon Lish editing Raymond Carver’s work, it is quite an interesting situation, whether the editing helped or hindered Carver’s work. You can check out the following link to see an example of Carver’s work before and after the edits.

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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in Carver, Raymond


“The Sensible Thing” – by F. Scott Fitzgerald – first published 1924

At peace among the flowers by Frank Kovalchek

At peace among the flowers by Frank Kovalchek

This is me reading a F. Scott Fitzgerald story, hate it, hate it, hate it… love it, love it, this is one of the best things I’ve ever read.

One must realise rich people have problems too. For a person who loves Raymond Carver or Alice Munro, it would seem odd to read a story about people not having to scrape by a minimum wage paycheque. Most of the middle classes tend to look down at the drama of the working class, but F. Scott Fitzgerald always had his eyes pointed upwards.

Okay, George O’Kelly at the start of the short story “The Sensible Thing” may be only working as a low paid office clerk, but don’t you worry, he is an up and coming engineer and by the end of the story, “he had risen from poverty to a position of unlimited opportunity.” All in the space of 10 months mind. It is what he has lost though. That is, Jonquil Carey, a girl in Tennessee, who he loved to the point of distraction.

It is hard to not equate material goods with suffering. Without, one should be distraught, when material possessions are in abundance however, one would think a person would be ecstatic. Isn’t that what we all dream about, getting rich? But seldom are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters truly happy. There is a deep emotional pain, and a looking back into the past. In “The Sensible Thing” George’s success cannot allow him to return to the happiness he had with Jonquil. After returning from the jungles of Peru, on his way to command another great engineering project in New York, George stops by Jonquil’s place. But whatever may have been there once is gone.

Perhaps Jonquil was never the right woman for him, but in George’s mind she was. Despite his success, he can’t recapture the time when they had first met and had been happy.

It always takes me time to shrug off my prejudices towards the rich and successful. I don’t think this is unique to me. Who sits in their tiny apartment, worrying how they will pay their electricity bill and thinks about how the rich must be suffering on the other side of town in their mansions. But Fitzgerald presents human, emotional stories that just happen to be set among the rich. Once you’re used to the setting, his work is amazing. And Fitzgerald’s prose is some of the best I’ve ever read. He has an amazing turn of phrase. Every fifth paragraph it feels he gives over to art, and will throw in lines that are so crisp and fresh, it is a delight to read.

If you want to read it for yourself, you can find the story here

“The Sensible Thing” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Posted by on September 16, 2011 in Fitzgerald, F. Scott


Drivel by Steve Martn

art imitating art by Steve Jurvetson

art imitating art by Steve Jurvetson

Story Title: Drivel

Originally published: 1997

Collected In:  Drivel

Brief Story Description: Rod, the story’s narrator, is the publisher of The American Drivel Review. Normally he only publishes it, but after meeting Dolly at a party he is inspired to start writing it himself. Dolly herself is a painter of paintings, ones designed to be ‘viewed’ by a ‘viewer’ in a ‘museum.’ The two enjoy their irony drenched relationship. The narrator makes sure his pieces of writing get rejected by at least 5 magazines before he publishes them in his own publication. Unfortunately the day comes when the narrator goes to see Dolly’s new picture and likes it unironically. There are no quotations marks at all about his ‘enjoyment’ of it.  As Dolly says, ‘But Rod, if you view my work without irony, it’s terrible.’ But Rod is only able to enjoy it. Thus they tearfully part, unable to go on together.

Why it works humour wise: Steve Martin likes to laugh at modern trends. People do crazy things for the sake of trends. Martin likes to show them up for how ridiculous they are. He also enjoys the powers of words, in this example, really examining what ‘drivel’ is. It is almost postmodern in his examination of words and extrapolating them to their [il]logical conclusion.

Further Comments:

Like Woody Allen previously, Martin is a comedian who crosses into the literary world.  It is hard to find pure writers of comedic fiction such as P.G. Wodehouse anymore. It seems everyone must have a day job, be it stand-up, or be it radio, such as Garrison Keilor. Perhaps there are not many outlets to support pure comedic short stories, and the writers have to derive their main source of income elsewhere. Fiction seems almost a quest for legitimacy for Steve Martin, as though his capering in films like The Jerk needs a body of literature to balance it out. Or maybe he just likes to express himself.

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Posted by on September 3, 2011 in Humour