‘Pulse Points’ by Jennifer Down (TEXT Publishing, 2017).

“Hunger makes you forget grace” (Pulse Points).

This is how I imagine it.

Jennifer Down has a picture of Helen Garner above her desk that she looks to in times of need; prayerfully, she asks, “Helen, what would you do?” I have portraits of myself in every room of the house that I turn to when I need a good chat—there’s one of me in a white shirt in Capri (although I’ve never been), another of my stint as a Shinto monk, several of my trailer-park-just-outside-of-Texas period, social snaps of a West Coast bohemian gent, and a huge one of my stay as a resident at Can Serrat in El Bruc, Catalonia, where I decided to learn Catalan, and where I briefly spotted several budding celebrity writers, perhaps even Juniper herself. There are so many portraits of me in different international hot spots either because I have good connections in aviation or because I’ve got a serious case of the Meryl Streeps. After reading Pulse Points and viewing one of Jennifer’s YouTube performances, I think Down might have a case of the Streeps too.

[Breaking News: I just received this warning from Aicha Marhfour: “They better not come near Jennifer Down”. Marhfour then displays her widely-acclaimed lyrical gifts in a message sent directly to me: “I know where you can put your reviews … up your arse (coincidentally where they emerge from first)”. Sadly, Jennifer Down ‘Liked’ Marhfour’s arse tweet. This flurry seems to be in reply to something Chad Parkhill tweeted, which I can’t see because he blocked me (I’ve never heard of him). Clearly, Chad had a Russell Crowe Moment of Gallantry and stepped in to protect Ms Down from a book review. What is it about being a twenty-six-year-old woman that makes men so chivalrous? With no provocation other than to say my review was imminent, Marhfour and Parkhill bristled, and Down applauded from the sidelines, much like Nicky in her ‘Dogs’ story.

On Twitter, I’m struck by Down’s high levels of self-absorption, a sign of a great writer to come. However, her dedication to self-fashioning didn’t stop her from wearing the same Breton shirt too many times in promotional photos. I intuited that Down’s sweet demeanour would drop if she sensed any qualification of her idealised self. When someone disagreed with Handsome, Handsome became Ugly. I learnt this the hard way when I threw coffee at a lighting guy because he said male models couldn’t be writers. Chad Parkhill’s online photos prove that male writers can be models too. Chad also shows signs of being a Man Genius, just like Nigel Featherstone, who blocked me after I suggested that Tim Winton’s comments on literature were reminiscent of Kirk Lazarus’s observation that “being an actor’s no different than being a rugby player or construction worker, save for the fact that my tools are the mechanisms which trigger human emotion”. Without exception, I find the men who block me are aspiring Men Geniuses. It reminds me of a friend who found that the only men who had a problem with him being The Grand Goose were other geese.

Down’s mobilization of her bee swarm means she should be reminded of her hero Garner’s regrets, conveyed to the late, great literary reviewer Susan Wyndham thus: “[I remember] the narcissism [of being twenty-six] wounding people and in fact wounding myself and being numb to it,” “the wreckage that was strewn behind me now, the selfish cruelties, the terrible waste.” These kids’ high self-regard is awesome to behold. Just imagine how hard-nosed you must be to appear so consistently sensitive and delicate.

Do you notice that I still haven’t written anything about Pulse Points yet? In this time of social media, it’s all bookend and no book. So, it’s time to leave Twitter and return to the collection and the topic of acting. End square bracket.]

There’s something of the Year 12 school captain who’s also the school’s dynamo of the English and Theatre department at work in Pulse Points. Yes, the yearly production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is impressive, but it’s still clearly a high school production. No, it’s slightly older than that, more First Year at the Uni Bar and then Back to the Dorms for an Awkward Fuck Fiction. The Text Publishing Company’s sneaky production means that the book appears to be more substantial than it is. Nevertheless, in what is a slim volume, there are many, many examples of overacting.

Let’s meet the leading roles: a long-term gay couple; a young dying gay man; a lesbian couple in a violent relationship; a titty-bar dancer; a male chronic fatigue sufferer; a retiring forester; an ex-coalmine worker; a gang of violent youfs; an undertaker!; a lonely dad; an ANU scholarship failure; an American rust-belt high-school waif; a forty-something TAFE graduate and holistic healer; a twenty-something everygirl from Wichita; as well as a swag of supportive boyfriends, regretful ex-boyfriends, and cute pets. The only person not to appear in Pulse Points is a twenty-six-year-old woman from around Melbourne, which Jennifer is. I commend Pulse Points for this staunch anti-memoir stance, but this is taking fiction too far. However, to her credit, she writes more authoritatively about being a gay man than many gay men.

Now that we’ve met the actors, let’s look at the Big Problems they deal with in this slim book: dementia; suicide; gang bangs and rape; apocalyptic fires and screaming horses; miscarriage; the death of mothers; heroin overdose; more rape; abysmal anxiety; middle-aged men sadly masturbating; car accidents (several); violent storms (in general); and Hurricane Katrina (specifically). At one point, I was afraid that we might have to watch a vegan being forced to cook a lamb roast. This is teenage morbidity, Sturm und Drang. The only fun is an all-to-brief oxycodone afternoon spent rolling around in the sunlight.

But that’s nothing, for it’s the settings that show an unusual prolificacy at work: Aokigahara (Suicide Forest, but of course); Saint-Antoine (including references to Belleville, Chatelet, Republique, Sacre Couer); St Kilda; Toowoomba; New Mexico (“it was the New Mexico sky”—oh, what familiarity!); Halliburton (including references to Farmington, Albuquerque, Morgan Lake, Angel Peak, Denver, Boulder). Is Down an exotic American? Did she travel to New Mexico as an exchange student? Or is she just Streeping ahead? Then we’re in Sheffield, UK, with passing references to High Bradfield, Castleton, and Hathersage; then Elizabethton—back in the States again with a staggering list of locations for a short story—a “titty bar” in Johnson City, Carver’s Gap, Engine Gap, the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, the Appalachians (of course, such a poetic name), Louisiana, Florida, Gainesville, Yellow Mountain Gap, and Roaring Creek; then back to Australia and Victoria’s Hazelwood (coalmines are bad), Omeo, Hotham (“Franca hated driving the Great Alpine Road at night”—each place name is a little ad—Juniper would imagine a Lexus climbing the mountain), Traralgon, Paynesville, Doctors Flat, Bruthen, Sale (are you bored yet? I was, but it’s all in the name of authenticity); then back to the States again with “Tacoma to Portland”, Mount St Helens (do locals refer to it thus?), Mt Scott, Woodstock, Disneyland, Anaheim, Palos Verdes, Berkeley (of course), Toluca Lake, Eugene (each of these places is a big world and not just a name to toss off), Granta Pass (I find myself scanning ahead), Brookings (this tic is driving me mad), Astoria, Sacremento, SFO, Ukiah, Cannery Row, Big Sur, Cedars-Sinai (of course), the Becker Building (who taught this writing workshop?), Wichita (where’s the linesman?), and Mulholland (again, of course).

This is a proper noun orgy. The last twenty or so place names appear in one short story, ‘Vox Clamantis’.  There’s even a reference to Winona, which puts readers in mind of the controversy over ‘Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver’ and David Pirner’s counter-song ‘Les Claypool’s a Big Fucking Asshole’, which puts me in mind of Aicha Marhfour. After hearing Down drop the name ‘Big Sur’, the reader is also put in mind of The Bold and the Beautiful, and the category of ‘Soap Opera’ is not unfitting.

What exactly is it that is irritating about the exaggerated internationalism of Pulse Points? Does Down have a big Tennessean readership? If not, why is she writing about it for her small OZ audience? Not to simply show what a precocious and protean being she is, I hope. I pray it’s not all actressy gestures with little substance. But let’s examine.

I think the presentation of an almost endless list of place names is a tic learned at a writing workshop. The teacher, let’s call her Jilly Kostel, instructs her class, when she breaks through her debilitating social anxiety disorder, to “use place names to establish a high degree of authenticity” and to “juxtapose the quotidian and the profound”. Juniper, Year 12 English and Theatre dynamo, soaked it all up and then applied it small-l liberally. She took the formulas and looked for the formula under all of them until she had it. Not only did she juxtapose the quotidian and the profound, but the catastrophic and the commonplace, and then the grandiose with the unimposing. But somehow it still felt like the School of Garner or the School of Munro. What to do?

Go deeper, polish those common pebbles even more until they glisten like gems. Complete a detailed domestic portrait in under 10,000 words, in under 5,000, in under 5. Use place names, of course, so something as simple as ‘Inner-City Melbourne’ conjures everything one needs to know about a fictional world, or indeed this book. That place name, ‘Inner-city Melbourne’, does a lot of work, like all clichés, like that line about cracks and light that everyone uttered when Cohen died.

Go further still, locate the narrative voice in a curtain or a cardboard box and write your finely calibrated miniature from that perspective, only a billowing curtain and a crumpled box would better capture the pathos of the world and this author, a billowing “net curtain” at “the cooling hour”. Why stop at being a young woman who writes so perceptively from Ramesh’s, the middle-aged #SSM supporter’s, POV? Be the lost son Ramesh never had with the lesbian couple he never met. That might capture the spirit of the times, l’esprit du temps that is 21st Century Melbourne.

Enough, enough!

Down uses the word ‘bleachers’ ten times to conjure Main St USA, and ‘net curtain’ twelve times, around about. She drops the ‘al’ in ‘almost’ to give us “I would have done most anything he’d asked” for the same reason.

There’s one autobiographical moment when she refers to bad sinuses and a really snotty nose.

But the Big Problem for Down is that there’s no existential insight into all the human trials she plates up. There’s no breaking of new ground in emotional experience, no power of movement through difficult stuff. What is being achieved or prosecuted here? Where’s the judgment? She doesn’t even pursue conceits, merely a style. It’s a twig on the lighter branches of literature. It’s a technology, an algorithm, and a decidedly commercial one.

Inner-city gentrification is an antibiotic that destroys all flora. All of Pulse Point’s working-class signalling is just a pose set against its jet-set aspirations. The drinking and drugging is an affectation too because people who are serious about it don’t advertise what they’re plugging on Twitter. Bad won’t do. Bad might get in. Bad might bring Worse—that’s what the publishers feel.

Literature is gentrified in Australia, more precisely ladified. And this is where I would go on about how feminised OZLit. is, but not today. This isn’t Women’s Lit., it’s Ladies Lit., even though it says ‘fuck’ and she makes jokes about ‘sweaty vags’ and it offers the horror of vomiting girls being gangbanged. It’s clickbait sensationalism in a pretty frock. It’s Laura Ashley Literature. It’s Taylor Swift.

The book’s cover has only the author’s name and the title on it, plus “Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year, 2017”. With fewer words, each word has greater weight. The problem is those words don’t acknowledge that she’s one of four Young Novelists of the Year, which tempers the lone comet pitch. It does convey she’s young and talented. Novelists of the Year are like Poets of the Month, who knows where they’ll end up. But in her ‘Acknowledgements’ she says she’s “championed” by Michael Heywood, so everything’s going to turn out all right. Champions are championed, right?

Let’s get past the problem that all the narrators sound the same and one can’t fathom why the story has been told after one has read it. Let’s get past the narrator who messiah-like brings a dying woman briefly back to life. Let’s forget that at one point we are in a scene with Michelle Pfeiffer from Dangerous Minds.

Let’s remember that the final story shows just how far she has come. Let’s remember that she delivers consistently high-quality prose and that there’s a reason she won a prestigious award. Down displays in this collection and on Twitter a striking sensibility and a good eye. Her output is great for a twenty-six-year-old. She works hard.

It must be perplexing to walk around Melbourne at twenty-six being absolutely admired by friends and strangers alike. You must feel like you’re getting away with it, that, surreally, you’re walking the streets with blood on your hands and no one will mention it.

Genius overcomes itself, and comes over itself sometimes too.

This review, my no-nonsense-bad-Daddy-saying-what-needs-to-be-said review, might be sourced to a sexual desire for women in their twenties. I want to lie in Melbourne lofts with them, and after surprisingly wild sex hear them talk about peach-flavoured coffee and the other interesting artisanal products they’ve encountered that week at the markets. I want to be there when they write he “kissed me with his devastated, expensive wine mouth”. In sunlit oxycodone-bombed mornings, she will wander downstairs, pass the billowing net curtains, and return with my poached eggs. When she sits down to write, she will know that I’m the boss. She’ll know that I’ve known her. (By the way, I have expensive wine mouth every morning and have developed serious French teeth, which revolts the hip chicks at The Espy. Then I mention my new book contract and watch their minds tick as they recalibrate their interest. I always win.)

She will know that I have known her. And this is where I pose the question, can literary criticism be a bit ‘rapey’? I do not like that Gen-Y word, and prefer ‘lecherous’. Yes, I think it can be lecherous. Who doesn’t, as they write, have in mind the author they write about, and are not sexual assessments made. I often have a different inner feeling when I write about Zadie Smith than when I write about Frank Moorhouse, or when I think of Dorothy Porter instead of Thomas Keneally. Such are my morning shower reveries. It moves the other way too: the writing of Hilary Mantel invigorates my picture of her, while the photos of ex-Myer model Tara Moss are not enhanced by her literary output. As for Jennifer Down, she’s pretty on both accounts. But who’s that woman up the back with the dirty teeth and lazy eye, and what’s she muttering into her page?



David Free’s ‘Get Poor Slow’.


Get Poor Slow

‘Was I in the mood to stab a pitbull?’ Hell yeah!

David Free and I are alike. We are both Men Geniuses of OZLit, although we have taken very different approaches to our promotional photos. There’s much of Free’s writing that I would be envious of if I hadn’t already written it. I see David standing before a huge portrait of Man Genius, cherishing the words he imagines coming from my lips, admiring my rugged jaw and full head of hair. Sometimes, the picture morphs into Kingsley Amis, Eliot, Hemingway, Nabokov, Roth. But behind them all the elusive genius of OZLit watches. I know he remembers me swirling at the bottom of his last drink. As he writes, “jealousy can do nasty things to the mind”.

Because he admires me, there’s a lot I admire about him. Like me, Free can manage a range of genres (long reviews, novels, short reviews, and long novellas) but his choice of noir fiction is excellent. The genre liberates him from the burden of being original, while also capturing what is distinct about him: his similes are as watertight as my metaphors, and his metaphors are good too: “His nostrils pushed out tusks of smog”.

As old-fashioned Men Geniuses do, Free moans about life through the voice of his hardboiled lead. The cries of the heart are moving: “My metaphors are behind the times. I no longer know how the world around me works. When did I get so old? One day I was twenty, and the next I was halfway to death”. Saint’s/Free’s despair is related to the big gamble of his life, his choice to become a writer. At times, he is sulky: “I’d rather be me and have nothing to look at but a dirt drive and a couple of fat old gums”.

Picador’s promotional photo of Free shows that dropping out from Bunnings and L. J. Hooker capitalism can take a high physical toll. This is something I counter with a rigorous hot yoga program, which I offer every holiday season just outside of Byron Bay. It’s surprising that as a resident of tropical Northern NSW Free has not availed himself of my services. I also hold writing and yoga retreats in Fiji with complementary psycho-therapy sessions—DM me for details on an $8000 3-day special.

Part of Free’s lament is that “books are in deep shit”, the newspaper trade “is giving out the death gargle”, and “fiction’s dead in this country”. I agree, and as a fellow Man Genius I also agree that standards have dropped:

“It had decorum as dildos went. Its girth was modest.”

There is an unspoken panic about this issue in Man Genius land, and it haunts Free’s book. After years of pulling our symbolic penises to make them longer and heaven bent, some time in the 21st Century news came that thickness was the thing people wanted. It’s hard to get the Playdoh back in the jar. Thanks to David it’s being talked about.

Making things worse is that new feminists like Missy Wilde write about “how bad their boyfriends are at making them come”. Marieke Hardy comes to mind as a possible model for Free’s Wilde. Who else “doesn’t just do TV” “wearing stockings with black suspenders” but “goes on panels and talks about the politics of body image”? Hardy like Wilde “is a feminist of the new school [which] means they show you a lot of flesh but you’re not allowed to look”. This bold sexuality alongside men’s growing awareness of their thinness on top and down below is more evidence that women are stealing, not making, Men Geniuses’ lunches. It’s obvious Ray Saint has a hard-on for Marieke Hardy even though he tries to convince himself that she’s not his type.

Saint calls women “girls”. Jade, the hot 26-year-old has “boyfriends”. This language seems childlike in the face of 26-year-old women like Jennifer Down, who doesn’t recall a ‘boyfriend’ but rather “the man I was fucking”. I know Men Geniuses yearn for a little more romance, but the truth is we live in dark times.

Considering Free’s predicament of poverty and lost love, I recommend taking two wives from wealthy families, or even two wives from the same wealthy family, as Jack Thompson did in the 80s. This worked for me, and many little disciples have come of it. I visit them in the holidays and teach them the ins and outs of grievance correspondence.

Free delivers his De Profundis mid-way, via the following trick: Ray Saint’s comments on a performance within the story double as Free’s comments on his novel. Saint is “in the dock” “saying his piece” but it’s really Free saying his piece. We’ve seen this before, but I have a sense that I’ve seen the details before, perhaps in something magnificent I wrote in an earlier period of my evolution. There’s the same self-aware exhibition within an exhibition, along with the very same T. S. Eliot quotes about “purifying the dialectic of the tribe”, gripping “the still point of the turning world”, and filing the “fragments I have shored against my ruins” with the ATO. And is Free now allowing us to copy T. S. Eliot without using quotation marks? If the references seem old, remember I’m an odourless and colourless messenger.

He writes about “the cadaver of [his] unpublished novel”. Is this A Dancing Bear (ADB) or another novel? ADB is a patchy campus novel that Free put online in 2008, and when I checked again in 2016 it was still a patchy campus novel that had been luminously copy edited. With each year it became more polished yet remained unviable. In online publishing, old editions vanish, unless readers download or screenshoot them. It’s worth noting that after almost a decade of being available online for free, ADB has disappeared in recent weeks. The strategy? We can hide the cadaver or you can buy it.

Steve Romei wrote a mate’s review for Get Poor Slow. His opening paragraph is shithouse. The first line “Today I want to talk about two novels by newish Australian writers” is followed by “Free and McGuire are long-time writers”, and his point that “Free’s no literary insider” is supported by his point that Free makes “biting in-jokes”. I admire the sick humour of blatant self-contradiction.

Romei admits that “Free, who self-published his first novel, A Dancing Bear, in 2007, is a regular reviewer here. We’ve been in email contact since but have not met”. Romei continues: “Skeats, the literary editor, is gym-fit and handsome, with a full head of hair and a pointillist beard. He wears nice suits. See, I told you I was in it!” Got it, Romei and Free have never met, but Free’s Skeats is physically based on Romei. So, what have my Holmes-like deductions deduced? David Free uses Google images.

Romei’s review came in July 2017. In October 2016, Picador’s Geordie Williamson tweeted that “the brilliant David Free has written a sublimely nasty piece of antipodean noir for Picador called Get Poor Slow”. It’s all such a luvvie love-in, even though nobody’s met. It’s the Man Genius of OZLit Club. I dream of a circle of men including Jason Steger and James Bradley (Susan Wyndham’s not invited) looking up at a portrait of Me, the big Man Genius. They rhythmically dance to my Ideal. Genius transcends and remains itself. The boys are mine even after they divest themselves of me. My wise-guy snags.

Romei is Jeremy Skeats. The ‘Remy’ in ‘Jeremy’ is the phonic link to ‘Romei’. Ray Saint and Skeats desire Jade. Ray is jealous about Jade and envious of Skeats, who’s “Golden Boy. Show Pony. Fraud” (Note: this multiple naming of an enemy might be borrowed from my own works). Ray worries about Skeats “penetrating her”. He worries that she wants “his column inches” and quizzes Remy for details of how they “did it”. But Ray wants images of Remy just as much as ones of Jade. She refracts Ray’s homosexual lust, of which there is plenty in the novel: “After yanking at Skeats’ slot, I’d finally scored this dribble of a payoff”. Skeet skeet skeet as Chapelle would say. Romei Skeet. Ream and Skeet. Skeet is a letter off Steve. Free’s aware but not in control of this show of leaking repression. It all climaxes in Saint “pretty much” getting fucked by a bad villain whose penis was “larger and nastier than [his]”. During a fight “his cock was on my belly, and it was rock-hard”. Tragically (for the novel) the desire turns to fear, and Free ends it in the worse way possible: the aroused straight guy bashes the “freak”. Such a pity.

One of the villains looks like James Dean and is some kind of genius. Now come on, who does that remind you of? Furthermore, Saint wrestles with his opponent, his alter ego, in a manner I find is indebted to my work. The number of people I think I’ve influenced would take your breath away.  It’s foolish, even impossible, to go mano a mano with me. And, by the way, I suffer for my writing too—some people only talk to me because of my looks.

Is Free, with his Ern Malley references, alluding to the idea that Saint is the literary hoaxer and, by association, that he himself is a puppeteer? If so the allusion has no substance. Philosophical issues swirl but never settle in the book. Free is gesturing in good faith, he’s a gentleman. But why not cut the allusions? Will noir readers be interested in Malley? Is Free encouraging them to explore the hoax or is he addressing the smaller OZLit audience? There’s also a reference to Prospero, the magician, which is overly ambitious. Maybe he’ll nail that in the next novel.

As Men Geniuses, Free and I are alienated. He’s “a lone-wolf writer, steeped in iffiness and private murk”. I’m a super-wolf who doesn’t like the euphoria of the pack. We’re disobedient. Workplaces demand obedience while promoting disloyalty. Who agrees that their own debasement is good for them? Free nicely captures this work-murk in OZLit The bosses worship one thing: “It was about rank. It was about Skeats’s thirst for deference. If you didn’t give him that, he felt like … nothing”. Too right! I applaud Free for registering some resistance.

Saint’s punished for rejecting rank. Men Geniuses often are. It leaves them broke in the Wesfarmers and Woolworth’s Limited franchise wasteland. Quality products are hard to find. The start of Get Poor Slow is a quality product, but the quality drops off. The single perspective and unrelenting self-recrimination get hard to take. The end sounded like he was pitching it to his agent. I even detected a little bad writing. “Fillets of light” appears twice. Picador’s copy editors give us the word ‘sby’. At one point, he comes across as a nob: “A lab rat who thought he was a PhD”. Saint moans that he has dedicated his life to writing, has jumped with the hope that “something will break [his] fall”, that “there will be a public down there”.  Sheeeiit, who goes to bed thinking a public will save them? He wails “When I was twenty, I thought the world would care about what I wrote, if I wrote well enough”. Some Men Geniuses’ first choice is writing, and some choose to live a life worth writing about.

In a busy week, I enjoyed coming back to Get Slow Poor and the noir style. There’s a great Hobbesian joke. He nearly lost me when a Howard Jacobson book arrived, and when I picked up a Ken Kalfus collection. I don’t read much but Free’s novel is probably better than a lot of OZLit. I enjoyed and deplored the resurrection of the dead white male. Maybe Free will win a Stella Award, but they’ve got it in for reviewers and the gender imbalance in Australian reviewing, although they express no interest in the imbalance that has 75% of all authors and publishers in Australia being women. But as the Man Free says, “truth has an awesome gravity”.

So, there you have it: penis girth, wanting to sleep with Marieke Hardy and Steve Romei, unacknowledged debts (no page of acknowledgements shrieks of genius!) a cabal of male reviewers, dead white men and hot 26-year-olds, some good writing, and Ern Malley topped off with Prospero and a pitbull.


Genre makes some things easier.

Freeway, freefall, freelance, freestyler, freebase, freeball.

The ladies who dominate the demoted literary scene might be right: the old-fashioned punch-ups are boring.

He writes reviews. Maybe he’s a Man Genius reviewer.

The awkwardness after the Vagg meeting up to Chapter 5 (actually this dead spot extends well into Chapter 5. I recall similar robbery scenes (‘a dark still shape against the darker room’).

There’s a humorous section where Free goes all Young Liberal and mocks the big Aussie novel.

A recent Twitter discussion about Frank Moorhouse mentioned he didn’t have much money. Moorhouse gave more than some enjoying comfortable superannuation returns. Maybe he lived large and burnt money, but I doubt researching the United Nations on small Canberra grants (after writing great comedy) allowed him to stand at the prows of the world’s superyachts. The gift is generous, exceeds calculations, lifts many, and often leaves its vehicles burnt out in a ditch on the side of the road. Here’s an idea: sweetrelief.org/ 

The danger, as Prince observed, is that women like Wilde can ‘make you shoot your ego all over your sheets’, and I’m thinking sheets of paper here.

Julie Koh’s ‘Portable Curiosities’

‘Don’t play dumb with me, little genius. My eye sees your eye.’

I just then implied that I’m a ManGenius of powerful insight, so it must be with delight that Julie Koh receives my attention in the form of this review, or rather light notes tossed off after a hot yoga and shower session–some of the ladies are becoming really flexible. Being ahead of my time I write reviews for authors not readers, but readers can look on if they want.

Julie gets my first and maybe last review because she was nice to me on Twitter. I’m old-fashioned enough to think I can sense something true of the characters behind the platform profiles. Ms Koh transmits as graciousness and mercy itself. Some of the other young writers who’ve lately received attention are markedly more precious. Long live gracious laughter! I also respect it when people who aren’t as good looking as me try to act normal around me. It’s incredibly brave. I sometimes get a little cross when people who are less attractive than me have good self-esteem. Writers are in the business of self-fashioning, so they should carefully note my look, corduroy cuts, and the shabby suit thrown compellingly over my Manhood and Genius.

I started Portable Curiosities three to six months ago, but got repeatedly jammed at ‘Civility Place’, in which Julie works through her bad experiences in corporate law. I won’t, and she shouldn’t, dwell on it. I picked her up again (something I do a lot with women authors) about two weeks ago, and read on from ‘Civility Place’, then went back to the start and read up to it. Corporate civility, like my reviewing style, is just so rude.

‘Sight’ successfully made me sad, and sadder the second time. My scrotum shrivels and hides in the ink well, a sacred octopus. It emerges and Julie tattoos a blue eye on it. ‘If I get my hands on [your imagination] I’ll strangle it’. That didn’t end up happening to Julie yet. (Ed. note: Interesting tense work Genius). Marge didn’t squeeze the throat of the Chinese-Malay Bart till her cartoon tonsils danced outside her mouth. The Simpsons and Chinese ghost stories are suburban Australian shows. There’s a lot of TV here. But so what. Didn’t DFWallace like TV?

I like the line-out-for-a-walk style, the locker-room idioms; ‘She’s got fantastic breasts’ is turned into a pair that take bird’s-eye views of Tokyo. I enjoyed this, even though everyone who’s important knows that I’m an assman. ‘Strange goings-on in the woods’ becomes a fable about a Russian orchestra hiding out in the back blocks of someplace like Hornsby. Sydney’s ‘housing bubble’ becomes a real house built like a bubble. (A quick aside, seducing an intelligent woman is more satisfying than hot girls buying me drinks. Rawlsian talk will do.)

Julie’s innate playfulness (yes, I’m thinking of you, you sexy-cute Japanese girl dressed like a cat, meow feline minx) extends to puns and rhyme: ‘boring, bawling’, ‘pursed lips and lipped purses’, ‘pastiche: a type of pastie filled with clag paste’. OK, the last one doesn’t work, but the first one reveals something important, like Kathryn Hahn bursting into John Wayne in ‘I Love Dick’. There’s so much in Julie that I fear will be lost to the middling gate-keepers of OZLit.

Julie is the Tattoo Man, the grey boy and the Goddess of Mercy. She’s also her mother, a precariously strung woman who does fast yoga. Mum’s influence explains Julie’s stints of singledom and her rejection of douchebags–both won’t tolerate men’s ‘ball games’ in the house. Sorry Jules, but I only come inside to use the toilet, or to lay my junk as you call it all over your writing desk. Does the frangipani scent twist your fervid mind? Corporate law and thoughtful writing are not undertaken by loosely strung cellos.

Julie satirizes poor imitations of me, you know, Sydney polymath bad-boys. These ones are into food, they’re the guys who know me as the Marco Pierre White of OZLit.. (Note to Julie’s Asian readers, you might here think of Eddie Huang) Laughing at funny food names is fun, an old trick I never tire of. Sydney pub comedians have been defacing artisanal products since at least the 80s. There’s a lot high-minded writers can learn from pub comedians. But as one of my LA mates told me, ‘you gotta keep your shit tight like the boys in the hood’. At one point Julie’s embedded journo doesn’t know whether the target of her sarcasm is Ben the Chef, hippies, renovators, environmentalists, kitchen hands, Sigur Ros listeners, or whoever. A moment of amorphousness. But in this very story I love the Sydney home reno lingo, and lines like ‘he’s ice-cream royalty’, ‘where the magic happens’, ‘flavours in the arsenal’, ‘the duck is the hero of the ice-cream’, ‘mise en scene’. Maybe there’s an opportunity for writing to engage more with free-to-air shows like Master Chef, Celebrity Survivor and The Voice. Speaking of which, wasn’t Tziporah Malkah/Kate Fischer a revelation of abjection and high self-regard? Her mother, Pru Howard, is still very enticing, like Claire Bloom (Roth’s missus) and Elizabeth Taylor. There’s irony in this story too: the dude proudly says ‘taste, you either have it or you don’t’ at the very moment he displays none while admiring his waxed-vagina.

After reading ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’ I’m pretty sure that the deadly ice-cream is laced with fugu, or gold silkworm 金蠶 or gu 蛊. I won’t spend much time on this story. It could have worked well as the opening, but I can see why it wasn’t chosen; it would immediately become entangled in the projections it’s resisting. TV is again exerting its power. The American references and content are very high for OZLit.. There is a good amount of self-consciousness and alienation present, about being not seen and being seen wrongly. They’re completely reasonable grievances. They could make you ‘prickly’ and ‘unhinged’ and ‘manipulative’. Maybe you could survive them with infinite good humour.

I’ve never seen anything yellow in any Asian person. I have looked carefully at many people and there is no yellow. But white people aren’t literally white and black people aren’t literally black; they do however come closer to their nominal colour than Asian people do. The Chinese call twilight 黃昏 Huang Hun. Huang means yellow. But twilight has always been violet for me. Wisdom note: If you look properly you will see twilight has all the colours. I’ve never had yellow fever, although I have met many unbelievably beautiful Chinese women, and been told that I am found to be unbelievably handsome by them. But Julie’s avatar talks about this ‘amazing thing I do with my tongue’, and that has really piqued my interest in Chinese-Malay linguistics. Konnichiwa, Sayonara, Zaijin.

Julie has the the right amount of alienation to be a writer. Feminist consciousness-raising sessions are wryly noted: their spectacles and speculums fogging up. As the old satirist, Ms Bluhm, Julie’s ‘been in exile her entire life’. As Two she’s ‘stuck here, alone, on this great fucking island continent’. I used to feel like this too until I took up rugby. She’s alienated, but as the ‘Acknowledgements’ show, she’s snugly friends with the luvvies. Julie has the best of both worlds. Actually, she displays the benefits of multiple ones, quintuple vision, the gifts of imagination. One foot in, one foot out, so the corporate lawyer will not meet the tragic end Ms Bluhm does in ‘Satirist Rising’, the story that provides the title of the book, which is fitting, because to me it is the core story. There’s a saying that ‘we become what we laugh at’. Bluhm ‘is to blame for the future she sought to prevent’. Here the satirist becomes what she laughs at, but she also continues to laugh! Koh is working through, processing and understanding what she is doing in Portable Curiosities, and she is already moving on. I’ll be watching to see where she goes.

Reader please note: Julie, Koh, Ms Koh, and Julie Koh are figments of my imagination and any resemblance to a narrative figure, if there is such a figure, is purely incidental. Any connection to a real Julie Koh, such as an author, does not exist.


Julie doesn’t have the dog-teeth of satirists, she’s breezier and better company.

“evicted to have electro-shock therapy.” ECT is so late 19th century, even though it’s mid-20th. She should at least call it ECT.

There might be a problem with sentence length–are they all the same?

I sense a UQP editor is too involved, something about the copyediting shows an academic eveness, mattness.

Placing a guy who comes across as a paedophile at a gay beach is unfortunate.

Anxiety of influence, and anxiety of religion. The second is shown in the references to multiple Gods, ‘crying to Moses and Allah and Ganesha and the Monkey God.. This happens twice, in different stories I think. People don’t do this, but writers sometimes show them doing so. On the anxiety of influence she keeps referring to Peter Carey. This is a funny one because it’s an anxiety of influence occurring in an author who hadn’t read Carey before people started telling her she was like him. There’s also a marketing aspect to the reference, coming as it does from an author who is published by UQP–perhaps she’ll go on to win two Bookers like Carey, etc.

The blurb notes her engagement with ‘casual misogyny’. I think, generally, PC portrays something less violent than misogyny (understood as hatred of women). It’s more like low-VOC sexism. However, ‘Fantastic Breasts’ reminds us that jealous men kill women all the time. I also see the casual sexism in the image of women in bikinis endlessly moving up and down water slides laughing.

‘I’m the manliest manly man the world has ever seen.’ This is a line that really resonated with me.

Filmic in that the her imagination is overly programmed by movies, which also means some of her stories would work well as movies.

Woodpeckers? We don’t have them, and if we do, we don’t write about them. Why didn’t Julie use a kookaburra or rosella? What does she have against perfectly good (Australian) birds? This reminds me of a reader’s report written by one of the shadowy Australian feminists who are everywhere in OZLit. She asked why I used ‘dames’ instead of ‘sheilas’.

With the Chinese people I meet, I never feel condescending for long.

I wonder how Chinese-Malay Australian woman get along with Chinese mainlanders–I didn’t find out here. “Being yellow yourself, why are you not writing about being yellow?”

DFWallace on TV: https://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf

Finally, I believe Julie might be an incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy. If she is, I hope she has mercy on me.