Friday, February 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

A Donna Tartt book has become something of a literary event, since her first book A Secret History became an word of mouth success in 1992. Her novels are also rare, they don't come around that often.  Its eleven years since  A Little Friend, which itself was ten years after her debut novel. So we aren't looking at a prolific novelist, but she is a considered, careful and meticulous one.

So The Goldfinch arrived towards the end of 2013 with all trumpets blaring, and obviously with huge amounts of enthusiasm and expectations riding on it. I read it on my Kindle, and had no real idea how long it was ( over 800 pages apparently). But as the percentage read moved so slowly, it was clear that this novel wasn't much of a page turner. 

It does start off with a terrific bang, in both a literary sense and literally in the story. Its main character Theo is at a museum when a suicide bomb is exploded within it. All of the story and characters of the novel stem from the consequences of this one event. This includes The Goldfinch painting by Fabritius, which really exists, and is the only consistent reference point throughout the whole book.  Theo's mother is killed in the blast, and the first quarter of the story is an extremely tender portrayal of a young teenager's sense of emotional confusion and sublimated grief. Yet after this dramatic compulsive opening, Tartt is understandably at a loss to maintain the narrative momentum, often lingering too long over drunken drug fueled evenings. Theo passes through a succession of self absorbed and often irresponsible low life friends and relatives, who are often nothing more than underwritten caricatures. 

All the while The Goldfinch painting constantly hangs around in the background of the story, which we are led to anticipate will be of some significance. However, we are never given any meaningful sketch of a subtext to hang anything on, let alone the painting. Theo himself is presented as emotionally incoherent, lives in a moral vacuum. and seems incapable of explaining why he does what he does, or why this painting has this hold over him, and he over it. Which makes the ending, where he writes for pages and pages a complete aesthetic confession of why it meant so much to him, all the more unbelievable. Suddenly Theo turns into the most profuse and profound art critic. Its as if Donna Tartt suddenly realises the only thread in her novel has been underused, so she hangs it all rather hurridly at the last minute on the painting. At this point I admit I ran out of patience and skip read through this last chapter.

Inbetween, the whirlwind of an opening, where her writing was undoubtedly dazzling and vivid, and the bloody gansterish botched events in Amsterdam near the end, there is far far too much padding and turgid narrative going nowhere in particular. It maybe Tartt's success has made her impervious to the advice of her editors, or her editors have become too reverential or scared to say 'this is getting a little too long Donna, where is this leading?'. What is left here, is a rather patchy and somewhat palid work, part brilliant, part bland. If this had been her first novel, we might have been more forgiving of its flaws.  After three novels spread out over twenty years plus, maybe her fame and the accompanying weight of people's expectations is becoming too much, not only for her, but for us too.  


Thursday, February 13, 2014

2014 PROJECTS ~ First New Work

Once the commission was done and dusted, I could start developing some new ideas from my sketch book. Here are the first paintings to come out of that.

Shattering Reversal 1

Transparent Alertness

Saturday, February 08, 2014

ARTICLE ~ Sexual Relationships in the Lyrics of Ron Mael

Part One - Unwitting Chaperons.

In 1974 I had a moment of blissful musical revelation, as a keyboard refrain faded in, built up and propelled guitars into the fray, and then Russel Mael's falsetto sang the following lyric : ~

Zoo time is she and you time
The mammals are your favourite type, and you want her tonight
Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat
You hear the thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers
This town ain't big enough for both of us
And it ain't me who's gonna leave

Some might say that Russell Mael's semi operatic voice, has frequently hidden the lyrical inventiveness of his brother Ron under his high pitched, rapid fire delivery and often indistinct diction. You knew This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us contained a batty brilliance to it, unique at the time. But what on earth were they on about?

Over the years and twenty plus albums, Ron Mael has ploughed a distinct lyrical furrow with themes around the dynamics in sexual relationships reoccurring. These are presented from the masculine perspective, and focus on male insecurity in their relationships with women. These are perceptive, often challenging preconceived views about the dominance of male power in sexual relationships. In sexual relationships the use of power by either gender, quite often arises out of fear and insecurity rather than a primary desire for dominance. This woman/man has free will and could just up and leave you. Men over the centuries have exercised overt and covert uses of power, as a means of controlling by keeping women at home. Though never misogynistic, Mael doesn't particularly toe a PC line either, there is plenty of objectification and idealisation of the open playing fields of ones first youthful sexual explorations for instance. This he rarely does without his tongue being firmly in his cheek, or a healthy dose of irony being left hovering over it. As in Amateur Hour :~

The lawns grow plush in the hinterlands
The perfect little setting for the one night stands
The drapes are drawn and the lights are out
It's the time to put in practice what you've dreamed about

Well she can show you what you must do
To be more like people better than you

Amateur hour goes on and on
When you turn pro you know she'll let you know
Amateur hour goes on and on
When you turn pro you know she tells you so

Girls grow tops to go topless in
While we sit and count the hairs that blossom from our chins
Our voices change at a rapid pace
I could start a song a tenor and then end as bass

Choose your partners everyone
If you hesitate the good ones are gone


Dance laugh wine dine and talk and sing
But those cannot replace what is the real thing
It's a lot like playing the violin
You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin


Often the men in Ron Mael songs don't quite know what to do, nor what to make of how a woman is behaving. The uncertainty within this atmosphere feels threatening or intimidating. So on Don't Leave Me Alone With Her, its the woman whose seen as being predatory and putting the man on his guard against her unwanted advances.

The Exodus is on
The impetus is gone
Nobodys having fun
How about another drink
Or maybe just a snack
The rest will be here soon
Here, let me take you mac
I know its started slow
Theres still no need to go

Dont leave me alone with her
Every home is Rome alone with her
And if you all go, who'll say no to her
Dont leave me alone with her
Dont my sweat and shaking register
Cause if you all go, who'll say no to her

You look at her and say, "She looks OK to me"
I look at her and say, "She looks OK to me"
The reasons very clear
You're watching her with me


Unwitting chaperons, how come you cannot see
Unwitting chaperons, how come you cannot see
A Hitler wearing heels
A soft Simon Legree
A Hun with honey skin
De Sade who makes good tea
Dont leave me here to be


On the track The Lady Is Lingering, Mael's lyrics capture the uncertainty surrounding attraction from the male point of view. You think someone might fancy you, but you're not quite sure. Should you make a move, or are you misreading the signals ?

Every word pronounced distinctly, slowly
There are no contractions, nothing slurred
Unprepared you watch in rank amazement
As she lights her cigarette and stirs
Every motion is complete, no editing of anything
Encouraging, encouraging, and not
the customary bill of fare

Can't you see the lady is lingering
This lady's lingering, and you cannot believe
the reason why

Every sip is of the smallest quantity
That still denotes apparent thirst
Every question is a means to draw long answers
Play the fool, it doesn't hurt
Splitting, splitting headache coming
Get up early in the morning
Where are the funny phrases
That are always followed by goodbye


Is it now all up to you, do you now
guide the evening, or do you await
a further signal, a look, a touch, a sigh


Risky business, all this waiting, wondering
A risky business, all this waiting, wondering
A risky business, all this waiting, wondering
A risky business, all this waiting, wondering


Don't you know she's here?

The next lyric is from Indiscreet, one of the early Spark's most inventive and diverse albums. On a track called Tits, Ron Mael's perfectly evokes a realistic experience of a conversation, its character and tone, how the focus of the narrative can jump around from Harry, to his wife, to the barkeeper and back again in an instant. The scenario is of two men drinking in a bar, one believes he's got marital troubles, and is confiding in his best friend Harry. As the night goes on the pair get more and more drunk, and the conversation takes on an increasingly paranoid turn.  Though the chorus talks about the change in availability of his wife's tits since they've had a child, the use of the word Tits in the title has a double meaning.  Both these guys, the more drunk they become, are behaving like proper tits. This is fine lyric writing, and Ron Mael at his witty and ironic best.

Harry, it's good of you to stay
Hear every word I say
And not just duck away

God, these drinks are something warm and watered down
Barkeep, how 'bout some ice
Hey, Harry sit back down
Say, that little thing there's fine from behind

They all look good after three or four,
So drink Harry, drink Harry,
Drink 'til you can't see no more
of anything, no more of anything
Drink Harry, drink Harry, drink 'til you can't see no more

For months, for years,
Tits were once a source of fun and games at home
And now she says, tits are only there to feed our little Joe
So that he'll grow

Harry, it's really rough at home
I've caught her on the phone
Hey, who's that on the phone?
Oh, that's no one dear,
The standard sort of line
Harry, you know me well,
You know that I'm not blind
Hey, you ain't been drinking
Don't you know I'm buying?

They all taste good after three or four
So drink Harry, drink Harry, drink 'til you can't drink no more
of anything, no more of anything
Drink Harry, drink 'til you can't drink no more

How well I know
Tits were only there for fun and games at home
And now she says, tits are only there to feed our little Joe
So that he'll grow

God, the room is spinning round
Hey, drive me home old pal
God, you sure get around
Harry, I know it's you who's breaking up my home
Harry, don't say a word, just drop me off at home
Harry, forgive me Harry, let's have just one more

It's all so good after three or four
It's all so good after three or four
It's all so good after three or four

So let's drink Harry, drink 'til we can't drink no more
of anything, no more of anything
Drink Harry, drink Harry, drink 'til we can't drink no more

How well I know
Tits were once a source of fun and games at home
And now she says, tits are only there to feed our little Joe
So that he'll grow into a man

So let's drink Harry, drink 'til we can't see no more

Even on Exotic Creatures Of The Deep their most recent studio album, there;s a track She Got Me Pregnant, where he teasingly subverts traditional gender stereotypes. Wondering how men would cope if they were the ones who became pregnant, would they feel any different if they were left holding the baby?

She got me pregnant
Done using me
I'm just a memory

You know how these girls can be they treat you all so casually
They wine you and they dine you and expect a little la-dee-dee
And then you learn that though she's several thousand miles away
There is a part of her she's given you and now you have to deal with being



You know how society is showing some sobriety
By letting individuals decide on how they get their thrills
And if there is a consequence then you are left to deal with it
Government will not be there to tell you what to do if you get



I offer you I offer you a simple word of warning
Think it's never gonna happen to you, better, better, better think again


A wham and bam and thank you sir is all that I would get from her
I never should have given in I never should have given her
The golden opportunity to love me and to leave me
Without giving me the time of day and she is half the world away


There are other subjects in Ron Mael's lyrical lexicon, too many to incorporate into one article. Recently the Mael brothers have released a book of selected Spark's lyrics which if you are interested you might want to investigate. In The Words Of Sparks

* All Lyrics in this article are by Ron Mael.

Monday, February 03, 2014

FILM REVIEW ~ The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty is a film of huge breadth and depth, one that is both ravishing to watch and bears repeated closer viewing. I watched it twice in one weekend, something I rarely if ever do. That second view if anything proved more rewarding than the first,perceiving more connections and picking up on more hints from the dialogue. Made by Paulo Sorrentino, its script, filming, editing and music are so interlinked, it is all simply quite superb, possessing exuberant flashes of visual and verbal wit

At the opening of the film a Japanese tourist dies whilst visiting one of the sights of Rome. With the piercing screech of a wild woman, the scene shifts abruptly to a party. It is Jep's 65th Birthday, and he's holding it for all his well connected Rome friends.  Jep's a famous novelist, well he's famous for a novel he wrote years ago when he was in his twenties. These days he's a reviewer for magazines and attends lively arty parties. He's a man living on the back of past glories and reputation.  Then a man turns up, the husband of a woman that Jep was in love with over forty yeays ago, he's come to tell him that she has died. From that moment on Jep's anxiety over the purpose of his life increases. He starts seeking out friends from his early life, becoming  troubled by thoughts about who he is, who he has become, and what there is left for him to do with what remains of his life. Its a film of quite pertinent and universal concerns.

Why hasn't he written that second book? People explain that Jep is essentially lazy and has become the captive of Rome nightlife, at the expense of anything else. He asks a beautiful woman he's about to have sex with what job she does, to which she replies 'I'm rich', which is the end of that line of conversation. These are the sort of people he hob nobs with, and has become a part of. He attends their parties, watches ludicrous performance art, which most of the time he looks bored by or incredulous. His life is filled with hollow people and hollow activity.

A friend who is staging a magic show, creates the impression of a real live giraffe in a space, and he can make it disappear if he wants. Jep asks ' can you make me dissappear ' to which he replies 'it's just a trick Jep'. At the end of the movie in a voiceover Jep describes the whole of life as being a trick, in that it looks tangible and to have meaning, but appears to have none. There is the suggestion of an upbeat conclusion, as Jep seems ready to start that much anticipated second novel. The Great Beauty is a rich melancholy essay on meaning, aging and dieing, and I couldn't recommend it more highly. Its a definite must see, preferably more than once!