Sunday, October 24, 2010

stencil #028 - brian castro

(brian castro, in company with bret easton ellis, lygon st, brunswick east)

(bret & brian - two of my 'idyls' in brunswick east)
An acquaintance once pointedly implied that textual maturity arrives when one has moved on from the novels of one’s youth (especially those featuring self-indulgent, mordant, angst-ridden, brooding protagonists with a keen sense of the absurdity of life) in favour of seasoned auto/biographies and histories. I resented the implication of fiction’s inferiority to writing about real lives/events and its incompatibility with adult tastes. 

Problematic, too, was the implicit notion that novels are distinct from auto/biographies and histories by being fictional. After all, the slippery, unreliable nature of autobiography means that elements of fiction in this type of writing are unavoidable: what goes in? what’s left out? what about faulty memory? how much is invented to make up for what cannot be remembered? and how much is glossed over to avoid mention of disagreeable facts/events? 

Incidentally, this distinction does not sit comfortably with Bret Easton Ellis or Brian Castro, either.

There is much to admire in the work of these two writers. Although their prose styles are different (Ellis’s glib, minimalist style contrasting sharply with Castro’s rich, discursive prose), their writing is similarly playful and provocative, as well as intelligent and witty. 

Ellis’s faux-memoir Lunar Park (2005) and Castro’s fictional autobiography Shanghai Dancing (2003) are connected by similarly disrupting notions of fiction and autobiography (and also by the trope of sons being haunted by the ghosts of their dead fathers). 

Lunar Park begins as a wry autobiography containing what appears to be a reliable/verifiable account of Ellis’s personal life and career to date but it soon becomes apparent that, although convincing, some personal information just doesn’t ring true: Bret was never married (was he?) and he never had kids (did he?). What's more, the surreal elements in the novel, including a maniacal toy bird that attacks Ellis, characters from his former novels coming to life and the haunting ghost of his dead father, add to the confusion of fact with fantasy, transgressing the rules of conventional autobiography.

Timothy Baker (2009, p.497) argues that “[w]hat makes Lunar Park so uncomfortable to read is that the reader expects autobiographies to separate reality and illusion more clearly than novels, but in this case the two become indistinguishable nevertheless.” 

I agree. The myth of the reliability of autobiography is powerful. Tampering with the form can induce trauma in some readers. Even so, I would suggest that rather than making for an uncomfortable experience, Ellis’s blending/blurring of fact and fiction, presenting a “hyperreal world…distorted and enhanced” (Baker 2009, p.487) in order to question the relationship between fiction and reality, makes this highly original novel an intriguing, challenging and ultimately engaging read. Furthermore, Lunar Park is a good example of what Enrique Vila-Matas describes as “a stimulating tendency of the contemporary novel that opens new ground between essay, fiction and autobiography” (Montano’s Malady 2007, p.135).

This tendency also applies to the work of Brian Castro, who in my view is one of the few contemporary writers in Australia to continually invigorate the novel. Sneja Gunew (2005, p.371) believes that Castro is a difficult writer to categorise, positing a “porosity between the categories of autobiography, the personal essay, and theory” in his work. Castro himself is keenly aware of the power of categorisation:
Let me give you some examples of the power of genre and categorisation. My novels Birds of Passage and Double-Wolf are frequently found in certain bookshops under the category of Wildlife and Nature. They are never sold there. My novel After China once appeared on the Travel shelves, and did quite well. (Auto/Biography 1996, p.105)
Shanghai Dancing, Castro’s seventh novel, continues his preoccupation with autobiography. Narrated by Antonio Castro (“the brother I never had”), it is loosely based on his family’s life in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau from the 1930s to the 1960s. Drawing on memory, history, stories, photos, and family myths and secrets, Castro rejects the limiting tropes of autobiography, playfully blending, “distorting and enhancing” a variety of sources to tell his vividly imagined family history. Castro describes the novel as a ‘fictional autobiography’, inviting us from the outset to relax our notions of what autobiography should or should not do. As Antonio stumbles/dances his way through Shanghai narrating the family stories, we are invited metaphorically to dance along – following his lead not in order to determine facts from fiction but to be dazzled by his seductive narrative. And what a wonderful dance it is! 

In his earlier collection of essays Looking for Estrellita (1999), Castro foreshadows and explains his genre-transgressing aims: 
One winter not so long ago, I began to write what I called an ‘autobiography’…I wasn’t making any claims about truth and lies and real events. I knew the word autobiography carried a freight of meaning it didn’t really deserve: real life; true stories; family secrets. Writing, of course, makes oxymorons of these. I knew all autobiographies were highly inventive acts of dissimulation which sometimes had real or unfortunate consequences. I knew the public reaction to autobiography was one of overlooking its fabrication. Then why not write a novel instead? A novel usually only risks one thing: its form…An ‘autobiography’ however, does make some claims. Claims about oneself, one’s family, lineage, history. (Dangerous Dancing 1999, p.205)
Bernadette Brennan (2008, p.152) argues that writing “autobiography that undermines accepted boundaries of family, society, and nationhood, and which shows equal regard for ‘fact’ and fiction is more transgressive, more unsettling, and more intellectually satisfying for Castro [and for the reader!] than writing a novel. Castro…is drawn to the ‘auto/biographical form’, because it is ‘unstable in itself’ and because it ‘has the potential to transgress the furthest.’” 

I think textual maturity comes when readers risk openness to new forms of writing and new ways of reading texts. Limiting your reading to certain genres and dismissing fiction means missing out on the stimulating and intellectually satisfying work of writers such as Ellis and Castro, both of whom assuredly appeal to mature tastes.

Read two favourable reviews of Shanghai Dancing: one in The Asian Review of Books, the other in The Age.

For two favourable reviews of Lunar Park, read Steven Shaviro’s critique at his (excellent) blog The Pinnochio Theory & Meghan O’Rourke’s review at

For a less favourable review that puts forward strong arguments against Lunar Park (but with which in the end I disagree), read what Joey Rubin thought at

Finally, some recommendations of other favourite novels that blur the boundary between essay, fiction and autobiography:

Exploradores del abismo & Dietario voluble by Enrique Vila-Matas (who happens to be dymo/stencil #013

La loca de la casa by Rosa Montero (stencil forthcoming)

Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald (stencil also forthcoming)

Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates by Tao Lin (probably won’t be doing a stencil of him)

Little Me by Patrick Dennis (will do a stencil only if I decide to revisit his work)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great post, would you mind if I copied it? and linked it back here obviously