Wednesday, 24 August 2016 11:56

Open Page with Fiona Wright

WHY DO YOU WRITE?

I've realised in recent years that without my writing I don't quite feel like a whole person. It brings me joy – I constantly feel grateful that I'm able to work at something that is joyous – but it also allows me to make sense of the world, so much so that I actually think I would be lost without it.

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    Why do you write? I've realised in recent years that without my writing I don't quite feel like a whole person. It brings me joy – I constantly feel grateful that I'm able to work at something ...

For a novel about death – assisted dying, more specifically – The Easy Way Out is incredibly funny. Steven Amsterdam has a wry sense of humour, which is always at work throughout the book, and his sardonic narrator, Evan, is perfectly pitched to offset the darkness of, and the discomfort around, the novel's subject matter.

The book opens at the bedside of a 'builder who didn't believe in sunscreen' and is now riddled with melanoma. This man has decided to end his life using the newly introduced 'Measure 961', which has legalised the use of the euthanasia drug Nembutal for patients with incurable and terminal illnesses. It is Evan's job to assist this man, and Amsterdam outlines the process, and its bureaucratic checks and balances, in great detail. And yet, after the shock of this procedure – and Evan's almost farcical bungling – Evan walks outside and observes his surroundings, noting a 'summer heat' that 'wraps both its legs around me and begins to hump', and healthy women pushing prams who are 'flushed, not from the weather, but from their own successfully executed hormonal purpose'. These kinds of disjunctions, between Evan's theatrical and droll descriptions of his world, and his emotional and ethical wrangling with the work that he does in the aptly named Mercy Hospital, are the main energetic forces operating in The Easy Way Out, and also what make it such a striking and unsettling book.

Evan is a new recruit to the assisted dying program at the hospital, but he is no stranger to death or degenerative disease: his depressive father died in a car wreck when Evan was young, and his mother, Viv, has Parkinson's disease. Evan has moved cities in order to be close to Viv, who currently lives, grudgingly, in the nursing home directly across the road from the Mercy. An experimental treatment gives Viv a new – if inevitably temporary – lease on life, and her new-found energy and imperiousness wreak havoc on Evan's tightly controlled, emotionally distant life.

Amsterdam has a deft hand with dialogue, and Viv's voice in particular – cheeky but mannered, occasionally grandiose – is delightful and charming. This is a skilful move: the reader can't help but be invested, both in the complex relationship between Evan and Viv, and in Viv herself, who is heading towards a death that will likely be both wretched and protracted. It is with Viv's imminent death always in the background that Evan begins to encounter the moral and ethical ambiguities of his work.

In a sense, Evan is always aware of these ambiguities. He does not tell his closest friends (and occasional lovers) Lon and Simon the details of his job, saying only that he is working on a research project into suicidality. 'Even that shocked Simon,' Evan narrates, 'who couldn't imagine regularly talking to the suicidal (and he designs open-plan offices).' He makes mistakes and is criticised for his 'heightened empathy' and 'need for control'; eventually, he leaves the hospital program to moonlight for a shadowy and dubious organisation, Jasper's Way, which assists people who are not eligible for Measure 961 to end their lives. The conditions from which these people are suffering, and the reasons they wish to die, are varied and more ambiguous than the cases Evan sees at the hospital; there is also an exchange of money involved. These cases allow Amsterdam to explore a number of different sides to, and a range of implications of, the euthanasia debate, and to do so without moralising, or even offering a clear standpoint or opinion on the matter. This refusal to take sides is evident in the different ways that the patients Evan encounters use the phrase 'the easy way out': for some of them, assisted dying is the easier option; for others, waiting for a natural death seems less difficult than choosing to end their lives more quickly. For Evan, who must balance both Viv's wishes for a dignified death with his own emotional and practical needs, the distinction is not so clear.

Steven Amsterdam 550pxSteven Amsterdam

The Easy Way Out is an highly empathetic novel, especially in its descriptions of family relationships, and the unconventional but caring relationship between Evan, Simon, and Lon. Some of Amsterdam's descriptions of the sick and dying are startling in their intimacy. One woman is described as having tumours like 'bits of fried bread' on her torso and limbs; another patient has 'post-chemo chicken fuzz' for hair. Amsterdam's insight here perhaps stems from his work as a palliative care nurse, but this blending of tenderness and arresting or surprising detail is also one of the strengths of his writing as a whole – it is evident in the fraught relationships barely holding together in the post-apocalyptic world of Things We Didn't See Coming (2009), as well as in the interactions between the members of the family – all with superpowers – whose stories make up What the Family Needed (2011).

The Easy Way Out is a finely poised book that deals with a difficult – and also critically important – subject matter with remarkable tenderness, humour, and nuance. It is constantly surprising, and very often confronting; but it is also a story about love and about living properly, notwithstanding Evan's knowledge, from an age, that 'death wins. Every single game.'

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  • Custom Article Title Fiona Wright reviews 'The Easy Way Out' by Steven Amsterdam
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    For a novel about death – assisted dying, more specifically – The Easy Way Out is incredibly funny. Steven Amsterdam has a wry sense of humour, which is always ...

  • Book Title The Easy Way Out
  • Book Author Steven Amsterdam
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Hachette $29.99 pb, 272 pp, 9780733636271

In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'After Mutability' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

 

After Mutability

Perhaps the best cells are the ones we can't kill off,
a persistence of the fittest, although mutation's
always painful. It's two thousand and fourteen,
and I know no-one who has been
uninjured. It thinks in me,
this shadow. I put on sunscreen, and am surprised
to come in contact with my skin.
In the same day, I'm chatted up in a café
by an aspiring novelist who's using boldface
and an ugly font, and the woman I pay
to tear the hair out of my legs offers a discount
because my skinny limbs
won't need much wax. In the same day,
I watch a woman in pink boardshorts
hold out white bread
for a spring-loaded terrier,
an ancient cyclist on City Road with bubble wands
mounted on his handlebars, although they say
this place has gentrified: mutation's
never simple. I dream my top teeth
splinter, turn to chalkdust in my mouth:
so I am in the world's gaping jaw.

Fiona Wright

 

'After Mutability' appears in 'States of Poetry - NSW'. You can learn more about States of Poetry and read the full anthologies here

Read Fiona Wright's biography in 'States of Poetry - NSW'

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  • Custom Article Title States of Poetry 2016 NSW Podcast | 'After Mutability' by Fiona Wright
  • Contents Category States of Poetry - Poems
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    In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'After Mutability' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'Crisis Poem' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

 

Crisis Poem

for Ian

And suddenly:
the men
are holding beers
and standing round
the trampoline,
and not the barbecue;
turning over toddlers,
instead of steaks.
The women
make the salads.

Fiona Wright

 

'Crisis Poem' appears in 'States of Poetry - NSW'. You can learn more about States of Poetry and read the full anthologies here

Read Fiona Wright's biography in 'States of Poetry - NSW'

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  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title States of Poetry 2016 NSW Podcast | 'Crisis Poem' by Fiona Wright
  • Contents Category States of Poetry - Poems
  • Custom Highlight Text

    In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'Crisis Poem' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'Potts Point' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

 

Potts Point

for Eileen

The light's older
in these sandstone suburbs,
jam-thick.

A clipped-haired man held a dog leash
saying one of us is single,
and even the leaves
had hunched their shoulders
in the gutters.

A waiter, golden-brown as a bread loaf,
squirted water at the pigeons
that sat cock-headed at the tables. My tart
was soft and skinless. Later, your cat

curled fluidly against my legs
and watched the water fizzing on the moorings.
There are crossed oceans
that must spill still
at the edges of your vision,

things we can not understand.

You said perhaps we're both like this because.
Or perhaps because we are like this. Perhaps
it doesn't matter. We stack
your fridge with blueberries and sushi. You roll
up the lid
of your old writing desk,
curved in three places,
like a spine.

Fiona Wright

 

'Potts Point' appears in 'States of Poetry - NSW'. You can learn more about States of Poetry and read the full anthologies here

Read Fiona Wright's biography in 'States of Poetry - NSW'

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title States of Poetry 2016 NSW Podcast | 'Potts Point' by Fiona Wright
  • Contents Category States of Poetry - Poems
  • Custom Highlight Text

    In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'Potts Point' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'Set Piece' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

 

Set Piece

 Strange, that there are sequences
                 we live as cinema, if I looked
over my shoulder
I might recognise the front wall
of my bedroom
                opened out towards the camera,

my furniture as hollow
as a stage prop. I am
vicarious to myself:strange,

                                  that sometimes
we recognise significance
instead of burning it back in, much later
and imperfectly.
            Some nights I wake up
gasping at the air, I dream
I'm trying, through my sleep
                              to speak,

           to call your name
from the wet depths of slumber
but I can't will my mouth
to move: if we are unknown

even to our selves
how can we try to hold each other
still? I sit against
          the bedhead, my knees

press against my breasts. Outside
are stars, a car door slamming,
the last train shunting back into the depot.

 

Fiona Wright

 

'Set Piece' appears in 'States of Poetry - NSW'. You can learn more about States of Poetry and read the full anthologies here

Read Fiona Wright's biography in 'States of Poetry - NSW'

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title States of Poetry 2016 NSW Podcast | 'Set Piece' by Fiona Wright
  • Contents Category States of Poetry - Poems
  • Custom Highlight Text

    In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'Set Piece' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'Smith's Lake' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

 

Smith's Lake

The grass grows longer on the easeway.

A pelican swipes the sky
            towards the seascape we can't yet see,
its webby legs outstretched:
                                          I wait for these,

              for sunburn behind the knees,
for sand between the bedsheets,
champagne at dusk
              and pelicans,
and their unthinking ease.

They clap their chitin jaws
              when we gut bream up on the sandbank,
this they augur:
to swallow fishheads
and stare with oyster eyes
              at the tangle of tackle and flaked scales
that will sandcastle by our toes.
You grew up inland
and don't yet expect this.

We'll eat straight from unfurled paper,
and leave our oily fingerprints to refract,
buy coffee at the marina
(and it will taste like sump oil
and salt, but a tiny chocolate biscuit will balance
on the spoon.)

You have no history here,
and don't yet know this.
               You can't yet read
the ocean
for its undertow.

Fiona Wright

 

'Smith's Lake' appears in 'States of Poetry - NSW'. You can learn more about States of Poetry and read the full anthologies here

Read Fiona Wright's biography in 'States of Poetry - NSW'

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title States of Poetry 2016 NSW Podcast | 'Smith's Lake' by Fiona Wright
  • Contents Category States of Poetry - Poems
  • Custom Highlight Text

    In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Fiona Wright reads her poem 'Smith's Lake' which features in the 2016 New South Wales anthology.

The grass grows longer on the easeway.

A pelican swipes the sky
            towards the seascape we can't yet see,
its webby legs outstretched:
                                          I wait for these,

              for sunburn behind the knees,
for sand between the bedsheets,
champagne at dusk
              and pelicans,
and their unthinking ease.

They clap their chitin jaws
              when we gut bream up on the sandbank,
this they augur:
to swallow fishheads
and stare with oyster eyes
              at the tangle of tackle and flaked scales
that will sandcastle by our toes.
You grew up inland
and don't yet expect this.

We'll eat straight from unfurled paper,
and leave our oily fingerprints to refract,
buy coffee at the marina
(and it will taste like sump oil
and salt, but a tiny chocolate biscuit will balance
on the spoon.)

You have no history here,
and don't yet know this.
               You can't yet read
the ocean
for its undertow.

 

Fiona Wright

Recording

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title States of Poetry 2016 - New South Wales | 'Smith's Lake' by Fiona Wright
  • Contents Category States of Poetry - Poems

Perhaps the best cells are the ones we can't kill off,
a persistence of the fittest, although mutation's
always painful. It's two thousand and fourteen,
and I know no-one who has been
uninjured. It thinks in me,
this shadow. I put on sunscreen, and am surprised
to come in contact with my skin.
In the same day, I'm chatted up in a café
by an aspiring novelist who's using boldface
and an ugly font, and the woman I pay
to tear the hair out of my legs offers a discount
because my skinny limbs
won't need much wax. In the same day,
I watch a woman in pink boardshorts
hold out white bread
for a spring-loaded terrier,
an ancient cyclist on City Road with bubble wands
mounted on his handlebars, although they say
this place has gentrified: mutation's
never simple. I dream my top teeth
splinter, turn to chalkdust in my mouth:
so I am in the world's gaping jaw.

 

Fiona Wright

Recording

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title States of Poetry 2016 - New South Wales | 'After Mutability' by Fiona Wright
  • Contents Category States of Poetry - Poems

for Ian

And suddenly:
the men
are holding beers
and standing round
the trampoline,
and not the barbecue;
turning over toddlers,
instead of steaks.
The women
make the salads.

 

Fiona Wright

Recording

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title States of Poetry 2016 - New South Wales | 'Crisis Poem' by Fiona Wright
  • Contents Category States of Poetry - Poems
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