Sunday, 12 May 2013

Jaguars, Jaguars Everywhere

One of the inexplicable things I’ve done as late is rent studio space at the back of an art gallery here in Balgowlah.  Although reasonably priced, it’s something I can barely afford.  Nor do I have the time to use it much because I have to earn money in other ways so I can pay the rent.  The owner has encouraged me to write there but that has proved impossible.  It’s a friendly place, with a lot of chatting going on, and it’s hard to convey why writers need solitude.  (Or why I like most to write in bed.) None of other artists there need solitude; in fact they crave the company.  And I like it too, when I paint.

The room where I paint is at the furthest reach of the underground space.  I share it with Marijose, a Mexican filmmaker in her early 30s.  Gradually - ineluctably I’d say - her presence has influenced me profoundly.  Our conversations are the kind you’d expect between two migrants, allowing for the difference in our ages, and a kind of shared past.  Her parents had studied at UCLA as I had before moving to Australia, and the great metropolis of Los Angeles is of course Mexican in origin.  Back in the 1970s when I imagined an academic career for myself it was to be in Latin American history, but that like many others was a dream discarded.

I was tempted to rent the space in order to finish a large canvas I’d begun in the kitchen of our tiny flat, where it was awkward to paint and would be worse to varnish.  It was companion to another I’d done of the scene outside the window, a panoramic view of the chain of sparkling swimming pools stretching out to the horizon.  The inspiration for both of these was that marvellous John Cheever story ‘The Swimmer’ and the Frank Perry movie based on it.  Graham Greene once wrote that stories make better movies than novels do and I think he had a point.   Both versions of ‘The Swimmer’ are about Neddy Merrill, a man who had fluffed it in his suburban paradise.  Though set in New York’s Westchester County it has a strangely magic realist, surrealist cast to it.  Merrill sets himself the task to swim across town by swimming in one pool after another and as he does he swims into his past.  It’s a heartbreaking tale of failure and regret, with the soullessness of suburbia at the very core of it.
But when I moved the unfinished canvas to the studio and began to work on it Marijose was the first to comment.  ‘It looks just like Cuernavaca!’  That’s where her grandmother lived and where she spent many school vacations.  It’s also where in 1975 a good friend took a three-month intensive Spanish course to prepare for her stay in Mexico and our trip to Cuba.  It is also now, alas, a centre of the infamous Mexican drug wars. 
All these bits entered into mix and the canvas morphed from Sydney suburbia with Cheeverian echoes to my inchoate dreams of Mexico and what I have come to name it - ‘Cuernavaca’.  And it is clear that both canvasses have that feel about them.  They are Mexican, in style, in colour.  All of which, needless to say, was unconscious.
The next thing I tried was a still life of roses, with a bunch from the local Coles as models.  The roses framed the bottom of the canvas and the upper two-thirds was white.  I couldn’t decide whether to leave that as it was or to fill it in with something.  But what?  I tried irises, ala Van Gogh, but it was saccharine. Then I had an idea.  What about a jaguar?  Marijose agreed. A jaguar would be just the thing.  It would disturb the painting. It would obviate the sentimentality of the roses. The roses were okay.  Would attempting a jaguar spoil them?  I had to get the jaguar right.

I spent a good part of a year drawing and painting jaguars, as well as cougars or pumas, as they are in Mexico, though I’ve yet to get up the gumption to put one in the space left by the roses.  I did other paintings instead, studies for that real one.  Our space is filled with Mexico-inspired art, some of it completed, the rest works-in-progress.  And suddenly, after the year had ended, I began seeing jaguars.  Jaguars were everywhere.  Not the animals themselves but their skins, or reproductions of them.  Jaguar spots are everywhere.  They dance before my eyes.   I have seen them on bags, on scarves, on shoes, on boots, on umbrellas, on tights, on tops, on dresses, on hats, on underpants, on iPhone covers and upholstery.  Then I saw the underpants modelled in Vogue and the accessories featured in the style pages of weekend magazines.  Not a day goes by when I leave the house that I don’t see a woman with those spots covering her torso or her limbs or the bag she has slung over her arm.   Twenty years ago leopards were the rage.  Now it’s jaguars.  It’s given me a very eerie feeling, as if I had unleashed these millions of spots myself.
No doubt someone from the fashion world could tell me what it’s about.  Or maybe Jung is the one to go to for the answer.  Or perhaps Dr Freud.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Dorothy Johnston and Sandra Mahoney: The Cybermysteries on the Web

It was late in the day, relatively speaking, when Dorothy Johnston began writing her mysteries.  Twice shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Johnston was a seriously literary writer before turning her talents to a different kind of fiction.  I’ve always been bad at distinguishing genres, finding it hard to slot a book into detective fiction, crime fiction, mystery or thriller, unless there’s a clearly defined detective in it like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Agatha Christie’s Poirot.  In The Trojan Dog, the first of Johnston’s Sandra Mahoney mysteries, Mahoney falls into her crime-solver role almost by accident, a younger, contemporary version perhaps of Christie’s Miss Marple.  She does qualify as a detective, however, so long as you take a broader view of it, and don’t insist on her wearing a badge or working as a private eye.
     Yet three additional things distinguish the Mahoney books, aside from the fine quality of Johnston’s prose.  The first is Mahoney herself,  who stubbornly fails to conform to any preconceived notions about detectives, lay or professional.  What she is when we meet is a recently separated single mother with a child under five.  There are many female detectives but none besides Mahoney that I know of who are mothers as well.  But while Mahoney resists playing to type, what she shares with so many of her fellows (and so far, despite the steady growth of female sleuths, the fellows still predominate) is being so emphatically an outsider.  At the start she doesn’t even have a job.  If this is soon remedied with temporary government work it also serves to highlight her fundamentally recalcitrant nature.
     The second is Johnston’s early grasp of the dangers posed by our increasing reliance on computers.  Published in the year 2000, at the birth of the new millenium, The Trojan Dog was one of the first of genre fictions, certainly the first in my ken, to finger computer crime.  As the series progresses both the crimes and Johnston’s descriptions of them become markedly more sophisticated and sinister.  In The White Tower, appearing three years later, Johnston tackles the whole wide underworld of games, and Mahoney and her new partner Ivan have hung out their shingle as security consultants dealing in the main with white collar crime.  The last of the novels, Eden, has Mahoney on her own again if only temporarily, with Ivan and their daughter Katya away in Ivan’s native Russia.  But contemporary access to the new array of tech supports means that Mahoney can enlist Ivan’s support when things begin to get dangerously sticky.
    Finally, almost all great detective fiction depends on the evocation of place, particularly the city, and Johnston’s Canberra, like Chandler’s Los Angeles or Rankin’s Edinburgh, is every bit as important as her Sandra Mahoney character.  To risk a cliché, Australia’s young capital Canberra is a character, one that Johnston has made as alive and mysterious as the infinitely variable human beings who populate it.  Canberra is 100 this year and among the many things to celebrate is the reissue of all three of the Mahoney novels in e-book format - once again keeping us up with the times. 
     We wish Sandra well in her new digital guise and hope many readers who haven’t met her before will now become acquainted with this very special, very Canberran maverick detective.