Roadworks

They have been working on the road near our house for months now. Trucks park next to our driveway and graders rumble all day. I don’t know what is taking them that long. I could ask them. I’m on waving terms with the guy at the “road closed” sign. I could go up and ask him. But I prefer to be at a distance. You could say this is a metaphor for a much greater truth about my life, but it would be a clumsy one, and inaccurate. I went to see George Saunders and he said some profound things and I felt inspired, until I forgot the profound things on the ride home and became uninspired again. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked in the same places. Sometimes I’m sick of them. You can change the concrete and rip up the road, but it’s still the same damn street. You can paint the walls but it’s still the same house, with cold corners and dank underneaths and spider-infested ceilings. We went to a field in the morning and it was foggy and there were spiderwebs over all of the grass. There must have been millions of them in that one field, working away in the dank underneaths, waiting for their feasts to come flying in. The early morning sun melted over them, and formed halos in the fog. The field was brilliant bright yellow-white, and we strayed off the path to take photos. The mist rose from the river nearby. I’d been there many times before, but I hadn’t seen that. 

Watching: Wonder Woman

The only superhero who mattered to me as a kid was Wonder Woman. Batman was too silly at the time and Superman was okay I guess but yawn. And yes, perhaps in my little confused 8-year-old way I had a crush on Lynda Carter. But I think it was more than that. The idea that it has taken so long to make a movie about her in an age where a movie has been made about every single shitty superhero, often repeatedly, is ridiculous. The idea that it is actually good and is doing spectacularly is a small happiness in a year of regressive global shite.

Teapot

He had a habit of collecting things he did nothing with. The broken radios and television sets and watches he found at garage sales and op shops were never fixed. And yes, she was tired of it. And yes, he knew. And yes, he bought the teapot anyway. It was green, and it had an interesting swirl on it. There was something about it. It could have been worth something.

Reading: Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta

Apparently the first "book-in-a-box". Written in the early 60s, it's a bunch of looseleaf pages that can be read in any order. I like these sorts of things, and I'm writing and reading about them a lot at the moment. I think B.S. Johnson did this more successfully a few years later in The Unfortunates. The device that Johnson uses - the same start and end page - helps anchor us and frames the narrative. Saporta's work doesn't quite convey the same sense of meaning (it's also, to put it nicely, distasteful in parts). For me, this is an example of form that works against the reader, rather than with them. Does it need to be coherent? Maybe not. But the few discussions I've read about the work mention only its appearance and the experience of reading it. Few mention what Saporta might have actually been trying to say, and to me that says a lot.

Listening: Sonic Youth

Songs don't attach themselves to me like they used to. Is it age, or technology, or both? For me this song is hundreds of drives on the Geelong Road at dusk. Long dusty dead plains and headlights and the fear that the little shitbox I was driving would break down at any moment. 

Reading: S. by JJ Abrams & Doug Dorst

I've just started a PhD, you see, and I'm looking at books that use different mediums and forms to convey their fictions. I've just finished JJ Abrams & Doug Dorst's project, 'S.' The premise: two university students encounter each other in the margins of an old library book by a mysterious early 20th century author. The book we hold is this old library book that they have defaced with their scribblings, messages, postcards, and other clues and ephemera. The thing is: they have written on the book at different times, after certain events have happened. There are around five narratives to follow: the narrative of the book, the narrative of the writer and translator of the book, and the narratives of the two university students at the start, in the middle, and at the end of the journey. It's all very confusing, and it's a slow read. I found I had to change gears every page to work out where I was at in each story. Others have suggested reading each narrative at a time - i.e. the book text first, then the margin stories. Not sure - I think it's better to take it all in at once. It feels like it was designed that way. It's an amazing read, and being the sort of idiot I am, I loved coming across a napkin with a map on it, or a postcard, or some other artefact. It's beautifully produced. As with much of Abrams' work, I found myself unsure of where it landed by the end and what the point of any of it actually was. It was clever, but maybe trying to be cleverer than it was. It was a fun ride though. 

His job

It was his job to drive people to work. People would drop off their cars and wait in a lounge and he would ask them where they needed to go. Based on their responses he would pick three of them. His colleagues would take others. It was his job to be polite to these people; to call them sir and madam. He would not have called them this normally, but it was his job, so he did. It was also his job to gently ask them to get into his car and take them to their jobs. They usually did not want to go to their jobs, but the society in which they’d found themselves necessitated the illusion of productivity above all else. In this society it was important that things kept growing, or at least appeared to keep growing, so they went to work and tried to grow things that were very rarely physical things that could be seen to grow. Because they couldn’t see the things they were supposedly growing it was sometimes hard to tell if they were growing at all, and this often contributed to their waking up in the mornings full of sickening dread. He could usually tell when one of them was experiencing this dread. They stared out of the car windows at the city they couldn’t stop seeing and grunted a lot. 

Complex

There were four towers in the complex. Wide swinging doors—the sort that you have to time just right—led to their entrances. There was gold and black shimmer and warm yellow light and glass and reflections, and men and women with expensive clothes and important business swarmed around. I was dressed well, but not well enough. I wasn’t sure where I had to go, so I circled for a while. There was a food court and I found a cafe that wasn’t busy and I bought coffee and decided I would pretend that I knew what I was doing. I walked up the stairs to the tower I intended to enter. I walked through the swinging doors like it was something I always did. I found the reception desk and a woman approached me from behind. She was tall and there was a frightening symmetry about her. She asked if she could help me and called me sir. I hadn’t shaved and my shirt was hanging out and my backpack looked a little scruffy. I didn’t feel like a sir. I said where I wanted to go, and she pointed to the elevator I needed, and I thanked her, and she looked at me for a little too long. I went to the elevators and I looked around at the people going to their elevators, these people needing people with frightening symmetry to make sure they get to their destination, to make sure only the right people were permitted. The elevator was full of mirrors and a television and I couldn’t look anywhere but up, and I ascended with these people. And I got out at my floor and I found a table in the office and I plugged in my laptop and pretended I belonged there. I reminded myself I had a card that proved that I did. Others with frightening symmetry walked around, removing plates and correcting placements and calling people sir and madam. It occurred to me that I could only be in that complex in that tower on that floor on that table with my laptop plugged if I had passed a test conducted by someone, somewhere. Perhaps the woman at reception. Perhaps someone looking at video screens, or device tracking statistics. There were four towers in the complex, and I was on one of the floors, and there were hundreds of towers in the city and thousands of floors and millions of people and none of us were satisfied with how high we were. I wondered when they were going to ask for my ID card.

Listening: Swans

Swans (the band, not the football team or the waterfowl) are astonishingly terrifying. I watched them in a warehouse with my brother in a suburb of Melbourne when it was 40 degrees outside and probably more inside, and the sound was a little out of control, and my bones and organs resonated so much I felt like I was having an attack of some sort, so I walked out of the warehouse for a break in the ridiculously hot sun before venturing back in. I've heard that people have been known to vomit from the intense noise of their performances, so maybe I did okay.

But what a sound. What a grinding, angry, defiant sound. Later I bought a shirt that features the baring teeth of the animal on the front of the album The Seer (above). I'm told it scared an old woman the other day. She didn't even go to the show. 

Listening: Guided By Voices (again)

Once I saw Guided By Voices at the Prince of Wales in St. Kilda, and it was the greatest show I had ever seen and have seen since. The band, and particularly Bob Pollard, drank vast quantities of red wine, getting progressively drunker, sweatier, raucousier, shoutier, and kickier. It was magnificent. I did not get a t-shirt. I have long wished I bought a t-shirt. T-shirt regret is not something you get over. Guided By Voices continues to fill my listen ears to this day, mainly because there are so many goddamn songs that shuffling my playlists is bound to bring one out again, but also because, sometimes, what songs they are. 

Fog

You know when it’s been a relentless blue sky summer, and you wake up and there’s a light fog, and you’re in a bus going to the university you’re now attending, and you break over the hill to see the suburb that has been built in your lifetime obscured by fog, so obscured you can only see the waterslide, built in your lifetime, you can’t even see the shopping centre, built in your lifetime, and you look around and you see an Aldi you don't recognise and recall that it used to be a place where people like your mother ordered interesting varieties of dirt, and you look at the petrol station and recall that it was once just some rough space, and you look again at the suburb on the hills that you cannot see, and it feels, for a moment, as if none of this happened at all, as if it is all still farmland stretched out over hills on the way to the home you no longer have, and for a while you can't stop thinking, what if?

Reading: Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)

I was a little worried that Saunders wouldn't make the transition to the longer form as well as he should. His short stories are little subversive humanist revolutions, and anything less than something extraordinary in his novel would have been disappointing. 

It is, happily, extraordinary. He inhabits characters like no one I know. He can make you feel something deeply for a character who features in only three lines. It is strange and bold and deeply human. Read this book.

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Sand

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We walked on the beach at night and felt the coarse fine sand squeeze between our toes. The water was unfamiliar and almost warm. A man with a large fluorescent lamp ran around a posing woman, illiuminating her for a long exposure photograph. She held her arms high and her dress blew like a flag and the man ran around and around. The stars were appearing over the last lines of orange haze. First one, then another, winking timidly into life. Nearby, other people, shadows lying on the sand, hidden and anonymous and unknown. It had been a hot day, but the wind was now coming off the water, and the two who were with me were talking and I was quiet and I felt like something of me was here, in this place I did not know. 

Someone

One had the feeling in those days that you had to be someone. Being someone was difficult, particularly when everyone else was trying to be someone. Being someone, he decided, required many other people believe that you were, in fact, someone. Your own opinion of yourself was largely irrelevant. To get people to believe you were someone required a great magic trick to be performed. It was possible, for example, to be someone when you were dead. Sometimes, you were no one when you were alive but someone after you had died. You could be someone for a few minutes, or a few days, and then become no one again immediately after, for the rest of your life. Sometimes, if you pretended you were someone hard enough, for long enough, and told enough people about it, you would, in fact, become someone. It was possible to become someone entirely accidentally, by falling off a roof, for example; or by singing particularly badly while being filmed by your brother in secret; or by being a carpenter, hired to fix a film prop, whom the director believes looks better suited to the role of the pirate king than the weak, temperamental someone-soon-to-be-no-one he is currently working with.

Playing: Inside

A few hours of strange, beautiful dread. I hate platformers, but this is worth the effort. A masterpiece of game design, with sound, music, art, gameplay and architecture all blending perfectly to create something extraordinary. To attempt to explain Inside would be to ruin it. A rare game that has almost no obvious narrative, but somehow manages resonance and impact. 

Fumes

At night, someone parks a car down our street. They park there for a long time and play loud music. I can’t tell what music it is. I just hear a beat, a thumping, over, and over, and over. It’s not loud enough to be bothersome, but loud enough that I consider walking over to the car and knocking on their window. Consider, but would never do. After a while, the car drives away. I don’t know what or who they’re waiting for. Are they dropping someone off, or picking someone up? Are they meeting someone? Is it a drug deal? Is our quiet street just a convenient place for loud music and waiting in an idling car? Sometimes I smell the fumes through the window. Or, I think I smell the fumes. It may be that I have imagined the fumes, that I have willed them into being to justify my pseudo-conservationist rage. All the while glimmering on a laptop, poking at a goddamn phone, both raging with toxic, otherworldly metals and magic, envenomed glass. It is quite possible, now that I think of it, that I have never, in fact, smelled any fumes. It is similarly possible that this car does not exist. It could be that the music is coming from a rowdy neighbour a few houses down, and the car that I imagine parked there has already been and gone. I haven’t actually seen it. All these cars and people and houses outside my door, all of them causing noises I associate with other noises. All of them being, doing. It could be that I have imagined them all. That I am in my dark room in my dark house and there is no one else and there is nothing else and outside there is only infinite dark my eyes cannot parse. That were I to stand up and open the door and take a look I’d be swallowed by the relentless, all-consuming absence of every single thing. How strange to then create a reality from this darkness, where people sit in cars and play music and leave their engines idling for too long. How astonishing that I can sit here, tired and unread, and believe that people are, and do. I’m tired. The music has stopped again. The engine, if it was an engine, no longer idles. Whether a car remains or has left, I can’t say, and I’m not about to get up to check. Whether it’s night or not, it’s time to go to bed.

Inflicting

We expressed our misery through inflicting it. It was the easiest way. It felt like everything was running out. The fiction we read, the television shows we watched, the movies we saw, the games we played, the news we made; all were about the end of the world. Or if not that, the end of kindness, perhaps. It was understandable that we were miserable. It was getting hotter. The houses we had built had become fortresses. The rents we charged vicious. We didn’t know our neighbours. We didn’t like our families. We argued with everyone, all of the time, over the tiniest of things. It was as if there could be no agreement anymore. No common ground. There could only be your opinion, and my opinion, and no matter how much we agreed that yes, the sun was up, the fact that it was in a slightly different position relative to where you sat meant that we simply could not understand one another at all. Sure, the sun coming up was the single-most important thing to happen to the earth that day. But I saw it from my backyard after a heavy night of drinking; a brilliant shaft of orange light poking through the eye of a horse-shaped cloud; and you saw it from your backyard, without your glasses; a brilliant shaft of orange light poking through the rectum of a cloud you thought looked like a dancing pig; and so we agreed on nothing. We could only imagine things running out until we finally believed it. Only then did it come true.

Anything

There is a song I heard once on a Melbourne radio station in the mid-90s. I was driving in my yellow Gemini through Northcote and it was dark and the trams or the tram tracks sparkled. It was raining, maybe, and the shards on the windscreen and I was leaning forward slightly the way I did whenever I drove that car, nervously compelling it not to break down again, not here, not at this intersection, not here please you bastard. It was my first car and I had no money. I replaced spark plugs and alternators and changed the oil and headlights and tyres and the radiator fluid in that car. I did more to that car myself than I’ve done to any since. Now I take it to a service centre and point at it and say, can you look at it, and they do, and I pay them money and I drive away, and so far that’s worked fine. I’ve never had a car since I’ve felt so secure in yet so terrified by. It broke down on the Geelong to Melbourne road more times than it should have, and without a mobile phone this made things difficult. It broke down at unsavoury intersections in Footscray in the middle of the night, and driving it through the Melbourne CBD to get home on the weekend was something of a dice with death. 


Anyway, there was this song on the radio on this dark night road. Perhaps the road was called Queens Parade, but I don’t know and I’m not looking it up. The DJ said it was a song that a lot of people would probably be getting married to. I remember it being a fabulous raucous song with a chorus that shouted out something like, “Just marry me, marry me, marry me” in that charming yet petulant way of certain British outfits in that period. Or perhaps they were Irish. I remember it was a song that sent a shiver down my spine. It made me wonder what it would be like to feel that way about someone. I’d never heard it before and I’ve never heard it since. I missed the back announcement and so I missed it forever. I half-heartedly tried to find it, but Google in the early 2000s struggled with the vague recollections of a few very common words of a song heard on a radio in Melbourne in the nineties. The few years I spent in Melbourne in my twenties are thick and condensed like clear gelatin and echo more than they should. They don’t make much sense to me anymore. I wouldn’t want that car anymore, I wouldn’t want to live in that run-down house in Fitzroy North, and I don’t want to know what that song is.

***

After I wrote the paragraphs above I went and talked to Tara about what I had written. I don’t do that very often, but I did today. She asked me if I remembered any of the words to the song. I said, yes, but not many. She said, what were they. I said, marry me, marry me, marry me, and then I put my shoes on. She said, is it this song? She’s good at finding lost things. She played it, and for something I’d thought I’d only heard once it was incredibly familiar. They sounded American, and they were. It was less Britpop than nineties faux punk. It was a little desperate and disturbed. How could I have thought it was a love song? I have convinced myself of so many truths. I sat down. Yes. That’s it, I said.