Failures: Personal, literary and of the imagination

I’ve had the time to do a bit of reading recently, but not enough to jot down some thoughts.

Two weeks in Lilliput, by Steve Vizard

Everyone has those nightmares. Those fears, of fucking up colossally on a national stage. For Vizard, that was a reality, when he almost missed a key vote in the 1998 Constitutional Convention, and made the news. I wonder if that wasn’t in part what prompted him to write Two weeks in Lilliput: Bear-baiting and backbiting at the Constitutional Convention.

It’s a good read though. For one thing, it’s a fascinating period in history. Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull, now major leaders, feature only as characters then outside Parliament. Other names feature prominently that have now faded into history.

Vizard also does a good job in chronicling a messy, divisive period. It takes hard work writing to make the reading easy, but Vizard does well. He blends an easy style with commentary that gives a sense of the personalities and flow of the convention, and an impressionistic attempt at conveying what it must have been like to be a delegate.

I bought this for $2 in the second hand bin at a local bookshop, but if you like good history in an Australian context, and from a personal perspective, this book is worth it at a first hand price.

The messenger, by Markus Zusak

I read The Book Thief a while ago, and enjoyed it. So I was looking forward to The Messenger. it was a complete let down.

Somewhere, somehow, something was lost. Perhaps it’s that The Messenger was written earlier. Perhaps it was a different editor.

The premise of The Messenger is a deadbeat character, who lounges around not doing anything, but has his life transformed as he lives out the commands given to him mysteriously on playing cards. He does things like threatening an abusive husband, forcing him to leave his wife alone. He also cares for an old person, and … other random acts of neighbourhood kindness, really. The protogonist becomes – I think Zusak wants us to believe – a super hero of sorts, one emotionally connected and caring for the people around him.

It’s saccharine and superficial, and frankly some of the things he gets up to are creepy and weird. There’s very little agency in the protagonist, and by the end Zusak’s attempt at a neat, clever trick ending feel superficial and frustrating. If you like good writing on any level – narrative, prose, or psychological insight – this isn’t the book for you.

Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s only as I come to write this review that I realised this book is co-authored. It’s certainly got Neal Stephenson in a more prominent position, which is part of the reason I bought it. Frederick George, it turns out, is a pseudonym for Neal Stephenson’s uncle.

The book doesn’t quite live up to what I’d expect from Stephenson, that mixture of complex scientific ideas blended with intricate plots and a complete failure to understand how normal humans talk or relate.

The premise of Cobweb is the Randian struggle of the individual against a complex web, a society or bureaucracy that stymies them. So it is that in Cobweb, the real enemy isn’t the terrorists plotting destruction. It’s the bureaucrats who are stopping the heroes (all good, mid-western folk) from preventing them. In some sense, I think, the novel lets itself down when it resorts to reifying the bureaucracy in a single person, a nemesis who binds the protagonists up in ‘cobweb’, the forms and procedures they’re constrained by. It would have been much stronger, I think, if they’d let it really be a struggle of protagonists vs. system.

If you like Stephenson you may enjoy this, but I wouldn’t rank it highly amongst his other pieces.


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