Fourth Estate

One of the hardest challenges for a novelist is to write a story for adults from the point of view of a child. In 1847, Charlotte Brontë set the bar high with Jane Eyre, the first novel to achieve this. The story ends when Jane is a woman but commences with the child Jane’s perspective. So effective for readers was Brontë’s ground-breaking feat that Charles Dickens decided to write Great Expectations in the voice of the child Pip, after just hearing about Jane Eyre, even before reading it. But the risks are great: creating a child narrator who knows, tells, or understands far too much for their age; dumbing down the story to fit with the character’s youth; striking the wrong notes by making the voice too childish or not childlike enough. It’s a minefield, and any novelist, especially a debutant, who pulls it off deserves praise. Thus Harper Lee, who never had to produce another book to maintain her legendary status.

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One of the hardest challenges for a novelist is to write a story for adults from the point of view of a child. In 1847, Charlotte Brontë set the bar high with Jane Eyre, the first novel to achieve this. The story ends when Jane is a woman but commences with the child Jane’s perspective. So effective for readers was Brontë’s ground-breaking feat that Charles Dickens decided to write Great Expectations in the voice of the child Pip, after just hearing about Jane Eyre, even before reading it.

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Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

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October 2021, no. 436

Back when it was all beginning, when everything was new and makeshift and oddly tentative; when the sounds of Faye Wong echoed through Tower Records; when the media could channel a message via magazines bearing Fiona Apple’s face, and television sets, those ancient conduits, mainlined Friends and Seinfeld and NYPD Blue; when everything was tuned to the suffering channel, The X-Files was concluding its third season, and Jackie Chan was launching his fourth Police Story; when all of this seemed obscurely relevant, three men – Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Mark Leyner – sat down to talk with Charlie Rose. Their topic? The future of fiction.

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In his monograph The Great Derangement (2016), Indian writer Amitav Ghosh pointedly asks why society, and more specifically literature, has almost entirely ignored climate change: ‘ours was a time when most forms of … literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight’. This was, Ghosh concludes, because ‘serious prose fiction’ had become overwhelmingly committed to versions of literary realism that rely on notions of quotidian probability. The irony of the realist novel, then, is that ‘the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’.

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In Creating a Character (1990), acting coach Moni Yakim urges students to explore their vulnerability, arguing that, while we admire Superman for lifting buildings, we become emotionally invested only when he’s faced with Kryptonite. It’s ironic, Yakim writes, that vulnerability is simultaneously ‘the one quality a person is most likely to conceal’ and the one that ‘most allows an audience to identify’. This is the terrain Rick Morton traverses in My Year of Living Vulnerably, a mix of memoir, cultural history, reportage, and witness testament. How can we be at peace with our vulnerabilities when, like the dinosaurs Morton used to obsess over, they could eat us alive?

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O by Steven Carroll

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April 2021, no. 430

On the back cover of O, we learn that the protagonist of the novel, Dominique, lived through the German occupation of France, participated in the Resistance, relished its ‘clandestine life’, and later wrote an ‘erotic novel about surrender, submission and shame’, which became the real-life international bestseller and French national scandal, Histoire d’O (1954). ‘But what is the story really about,’ the blurb asks, ‘Dominique, her lover, or the country and the wartime past it would rather forget?’

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At one point in Boy on Fire, music critic Mark Mordue’s strange, hybrid biography and social history of the early years and musical development of singer–songwriter Nick Cave, Mordue describes his subject as ‘the nominal ship’s captain, a drug-spun Ahab running amok on stage and off’. It is a typically sharp image, but it may reveal more than was intended; for all that Cave is Mordue’s Ahab, he is far more like the white whale itself: a great and receding mythical creature that will swallow the world before giving up any of its secrets. For a long while, the reader is cajoled into thinking this work might be the first in an exhaustive series on the artist, but by the end the truth is revealed: the subject simply got the better of his biographer, who languishes still in the belly of the whale. After an unnaturally long gestation, it seems to have become a case of publish or go mad.

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Graz, 16 May 1906. Richard Strauss is conducting his scandalous, recently premièred opera, Salome. The expectant audience includes Giacomo Puccini, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav and Alma Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Alban Berg, and, slipping surreptitiously into a cheap seat, possibly a certain Adolf Hitler, having borrowed money from relatives for the trip from Vienna. So begins Alex Ross’s exploration of the kaleidoscopic twentieth-century musical world in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the twentieth century (2007), his now classic study. Ross is well known as the chief music critic of The New Yorker.

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For a protagonist that is self-professedly unlikeable, Martha commands attention – and is likeable. In Meg Mason’s tragicomedy Sorrow and Bliss, Martha navigates living with an undiagnosed mental illness. The novel solidifies Mason’s thematic preoccupations by revisiting those of her previous works: as in her memoir Say It Again in a Nice Voice (2012) and her first novel, You Be Mother (2017), the power of female relationships, loneliness, and the bleak humour of motherhood are apparent.

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The cover of All Our Shimmering Skies is crammed with surprises. Look closely among the Australian wildflowers and you’ll find black hearts, butterflies, lightning bolts, a shovel, a crocodile, a dingo, a fruit bat, a Japanese fighter plane, and a red rising sun. Trent Dalton has adopted a similar method in writing his second novel, which samples almost every genre you can think of, from war story to magic realism and Gothic horror to comedy. There are references to Romeo and Juliet and a nod to The Pilgrim’s Progress

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