Friday, 8 April 2005

$3 > no dollars

Welcome to the post where Laura vents the products of seven or so years of being disgusted by the Elliot Perlman Publicity Machine!

I have read Three Dollars; I read it when it first appeared. Even then I understood that when a novelist (especially a new Australian novelist) is the recipient of extravagant, hyperbolic praise, it's not necessarily his fault, and shouldn't be held against him. Three Dollars didn't warrant the raptures and falling-about it produced, and I don't think it needed to win *quite* so many prizes. It's a novel that is fairly well organised but clumsily written, or perhaps poorly edited - e.g., what's this sentence mean? "I was wondering how the teacher managed to have the same smell every day, a musky smell that announced him long after he had gone and always would." It tries too hard: it doesn't parse. But whatever. It's not that unusual for some book or movie or whatever to be over-praised to the point of counter-productiveness. What bothered me about this instance was something that happened again, and still appears to be happening, with Perlman's (pompously named) second book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, which I did not finish. (for the safety of my loved ones I had to put it away when I read that the main guy's dog is named after William Empson.)

Perlman's books present themselves, or are presented, whatever, as a sort of intellectual gift from the gods to those embattled souls who believe the contemporary world is rooted and we're all doomed unless we can salvage the remnants of the Great Western Tradition. Unsurprisingly, they don't live up to the hype: only a new George Eliot could. But the people who proclaim themselves the champions and defenders of the Tradition, and who should therefore be capable of noticing that these novels aren't all that, are the very same guys who have been so enthusiastically leading the cheer squad. It's all so wrong.

The movie of Three Dollars is out next week. The flyer I picked up in the foyer of the Nova last Sunday quotes Bob Ellis: "One of the best Australian films yet made." Allow me to say I'm sceptical, Bob.

Ok, so Bloom and Ellis are not terribly credible thinkers any more, whatever each man was once. They are both too far gone with headkicking for its own sake to be taken seriously as defenders of ideological or aesthetic positions (as against poses.) And I think the reason why they and their ilk are so keen on Perlman's books is because the novels basically express the same selfish view of the world.

Let me illustrate that with a personal experience.(I'm not claiming I'm not self-centred - jeez, this IS a blog. But I am saying that Three Dollars, in particular, is about dignifying the puerile idea that life owes something extra to people with talent and imagination, and that is a notion I find disgusting)

Near the very end of Three Dollars the protagonist tears a hole in his one remaining decent suit, just before an interview for a job he desperately needs, and, in a passion, he rushes into a City tailoring and alterations shop and asks the woman" there to repair it, straight away. They have a conversation about how much it would cost and how long it would take for various methods of repair, during which he feels that she is being wilfully obstructive, and the upshot is that she can't or won't help him and the suit stays torn. He views this, as he runs out into the street again, as epitomising and capping the process that's led him to this moment: the worse he needs something, the more firmly it's withheld from him.

My story. A few years before Perlman's book, I worked in that tailors' for a little while: for one and three-quarter days, to be exact. I was hired to work, wouldn't you know it, on Invisible Mending: fixing cigarette burns and three-corner tears in $700 suits. You sit on a high chair under a warm, bright spot lamp, looking through a magnifier the little hole, over which you put a tiny, slightly frayed patch of the suit fabric that you've cut from out of the seam allowance or a concealed hem somewhere. Then, using wire-thin hooks and needles, you pick up each individual thread in the patch and weave it into the fabric around the hole. A skilful patient mender will repair the cloth so that you simply cannot see where the hole was. This takes time.

How delighted was I to get that job. It came in the depressing, directionless, flat broke period of my life between dropping out of one degree and beginning another. So it was a pretty severe blow to discover that being able to handle a needle and thread wasn't enough: the tools are shaped in such a way that they have to be mostly manipulated with the right hand, and I'm left-handed. The tailor absorbed this news in silence, then announced, calmly, that I would soon learn to sew with my right hand, it wouldn't be that hard. I lasted until afternoon teatime on the second day. Then I said I felt ill, which was true, and needed to go outside, and I never went back. I don't remember what the dole office said but I suppose they must have relented.

It was a disappointment, and it happened as I said at a quite bad time. But I would have to have been much worse off balance emotionally even than I was to take the episode as some kind of personal insult or rejection in the way the character in Three Dollars views the crap that happens to him. I suppose you could say that is the point, he *is* off balance by that stage, but then the whole novel is arranged on the same premise anyway: he spirals off into a sort of psychic rampage precisely because he has learned to view the world as not adequately meeting his requirements. And that is selfish, as well as crazy. Why should the world feed into your fantasy of it?

And there you have it: the full and explicit story of why I won't be going to see "one of the best Australian movies yet made", no matter how many times during the next few weeks somebody tells me I should.


Mallrat said...

wow- what a great post. allow me to comment-whore here, Laura: I saw $3 last night and it was shit.
I won't be telling you to go see it. Phew, someone else hates it.

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Phantom Scribbler said...

Hear, hear! Great post.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Hear, hear! Great post.

momo said...

Hmmmn ... I found that book in a suitcase at home a few years back. I don't know who it belonged to, or why it was in my suitcase, yet I remember reading a few sentences and thinking 'aaah, fuck this' (or something similarly eloquent) before throwing it back in the suitcase.

That's my three cents.

Lucy Tartan said...

Probably the smartest thing to do with something as stupid as that book, momo.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't finish.

Dreary and self-pitying.

- barista

Susoz said...

Interesting. I'd never even heard of that novelist, the novel or the film until last Friday night when I went to the movies and it was previewed. The preview made it look vaguely interesting but not so interesting that I'd go and see it.
I once had some invisible mending done on an expensive woollen jacket which I burnt on a heater. The result was amazing.

Your employment story reminds me of the depths of my own unemployment misery some years ago. I once had a job putting labels on handbags in a kind of factory, which I left after two days.

Brownie said...

SouthPaws: Prince William.
My very first primary school teacher spent the whole year forcing me to write with my right hand because I could write already. I have been completely screwy ever since.
How did Harold Bloom get Elliot's mobile number? Alan Rickman (swoon) doesn't have mine (well if he does he isn't using it).