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This novel for a warm glow?

This novel for a warm glow?

To be under the doona, to feel the rush, a warm, warm gut, fizzing ribs, tingling fingers – well, it was such a surprise, let me tell you. It wasn’t because I’d over-done the port before going to bed, or had swum a million laps across the afternoon. It was because I had something in my hands. A book. A new book.

It might have been because it was the recent novel by JM Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus. I am a Coetzee fan; his Disgrace knocked my sideways when I first read it, and I dip into it annually. How to write as well as Coetzee? I’d like to know.

The warm, warm rush of a feeling might have been because the book was so beautifully produced, as in manufactured. A hard back. A hard back! How rare in this electronic day and age, in this era when the dollar drives every decision. (But was there ever a time when the dollar didn’t drive every decision? Only a fiction writer would be able to answer that question.)

Perhaps the warm, warm gut-rush of a feeling was because Coetzee, an exile from South Africa now living in South Australia, had decided to explore Australia’s current obsession with turning away those who come to our land of plenty by boat. How to take this on and make sense of it? Only Coetzee would be able to find some kind of adequate response.

Perhaps, though, the gut-rush that other evening was because reading has become so integral to my life. Sleeping, waking, eating, breathing – these are the essentials. Is reading fiction now essential to me? It could be. Is it critical? Can a day go by without being a part of the imagined lives of others, the worlds of others, the problems and dramas, the learning that comes as a result? Perhaps the answer is yes, a day can go by without reading fiction, without being a part of all that make-believe. But there’s that related question: should a day go by without reading fiction? No, I don’t think a day should go by without reading fiction.

The essence – the whole point – of life is experience. Surely that’s the truth. So, then, doesn’t reading fiction amplify and diversify and illuminate experience? That has to be the truth, too.

Perhaps, in the end, I’m just in love.

With the feeling of reading.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 May 2014.)

In Radelaide recently (‘Radelaide’ being what appears to be a relatively new and sarcastic moniker for the grand old dame of South Australia, Adelaide) I spent a lot of time walking between Hindley Street, which is the Kings Cross of that part of the world and blogged about below in ‘Every City Has Sex’, an admittedly meretricious title for a post, but, hey, we all want to be wanted don’t we), and Rundle Street, because that wildly wicked Fringe Festival was on at the bottom of the street. So I wore out a fair bit of rubber on the old joggers, which I really should replace, though I don’t want to, because me and those joggers have been through so much – we’ve struck up this friendship and I can’t break it off, not yet.

Hang on, this isn’t about footwear friendships.  It’s about chicks.  Kind of.

Between Hindley Street and Rundle Street is Rundle Mall, a typical Australian pedestrian plaza filled with chewy-struck brick pavers, reject shops, fashion stores that only those with too little taste would bother entering, bubblers that don’t work, a bit of public art here and there (fat brass pigs banging around fake rubbish bins, that kind of thing), and stranded cafes selling over-priced coffee and cakes that should have been taken to the tip weeks ago.  Actually it’s not that bad – I’m just getting carried away with myself…yet again (but getting carried away is my professional obligation, or so I keep telling myself).

But then, on a hoarding for a new fit-out for a department store, I spotted a series of women.  Of course, there weren’t really women stuck to the hoarding, though that would have been very interesting indeed – as I said, this was the time of the Fringe, so anything can happen, anything should happen, so a group of women stapling themselves to a temporary facade would have been just lovely.  But the images: LIFE-SIZED (I can’t stress that enough) cartoons of young, apparently modern women.  There was The Professional Woman, The Casual Woman, and the High Society Woman.  There were others but I was beginning to look like a freak as I snapped away at what were essentially marketing images. We live in age when a man with a digital camera in public is either a terrorist or a pervert, and I’m happy to report I am neither.

Despite sounding like a Year Twelve Media Studies teacher, I can’t help asking a question: what do the images want to tell us?  ‘If you’re a woman, you too can have the waist the size of a 5-cent piece, the head the size of a hot-air balloon, and the eyes that Walt Disney would kill for.’  If you’re one of the developed world’s larger girls or women, are they saying, ‘Come inside this department store and we’ll make you slim and slinky and beautiful?  Just spend some money and walk out carrying a few shopping bags and you’ll have the biggest spring in your step it’ll be like you’ve just shagged 10,000 Jude Laws.’

Are these images saying, ‘Don’t worry about what you eat – just yack it up and all’s well?’  Are they saying, ‘Women don’t really have stomachs – that’s a myth’?  Are they saying, ‘Women can be anything they want, so come inside, max out your credit card and validate your freedom’?

I may well be getting all worked up over nothing.  Tell me I’m getting worked up about nothing.  Except Canadian humourist (and economist, would you believe) Stephen Leacock did say in The Garden of Folly (1924) that ‘Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it’.  He’s got a point, doesn’t he.

Still, tell me to go listen to some wretchedly miserable contemporary rock band (Oh God, he’s going to mention The Antlers again, I hear you cry).

Tell me to just go to sleep and wake up cheery like a normal person.

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