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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

An introduction to the ever-so-slightly-odd worlds of Jonathan Gould


Daggy – adjective (Australian slang)

The opposite of trendy. Uncool, in an unfashionable sense. Think so last season, or old fashioned. Applies to people and things, not just fashion. Not particularly insulting; can even have friendly undertones.

That flannelette shirt is so daggy; why don't you update your wardrobe ?
Stop hanging out with your daggy friends, get with the hip, new crowd.

DoodlingJust what the world needs, another genre. Finding that his books were uncomfortable in any of the existing genres – Doodling, for example, takes place in outer space but you’d never call it ‘science fiction’ – Jonathan Gould had a think about it and decided to invent a term that he could use to describe the kind of writing he produces. The term he opted for, being an Australian, was ‘dag-lit’ which, based on the definition above, seems not a little self-deprecatory. The Wikipedia article on ‘Dag’ certainly makes interesting reading. This is what Jonathan means by his term:

It’s a term I’ve used to create a genre for my books, obviously based on things like chick-lit and lad-lit. Dag is Australian slang for someone who is uncool and doesn’t follow the crowd but usually in a funny kind of way. Originally it was an insult (a bit like nerd) derived from the wool industry (the dags are the bits of poo stuck to the wool on a sheep’s bum) but its meaning has been flipped around and many people (myself included) now wear that badge with pride. I like it, partly because, like a true dag, my stories don’t follow the crowd and can be hard to classify. It also gives a sense of the audience I’m writing for. Dags can be young or old, male or female – they just need to have their own unique view of the world. And that’s a good description of the sort of readers I’m aiming for. – L.T. Suzuki, ‘Jonathan Gould Interview’, Author’s Den

Personally I see his books as natural responses to the exigencies of life in the twenty-first century. Let me explain.

Two of the most important concepts in the rhetorical tradition – classical kairos and modern exigence – involve … special attention to the time of communication. Kairos has to do with finding the right argument for the right moment. Exigence suggests that topics emerge as urgent considerations at a particular historical time. The power of both concepts depends upon the author and audience coming to an agreement that the moment has arrived for a certain topic to receive close attention.


Exigence has to do with what prompts the author to write in the first place, a sense of urgency, a problem that requires attention right now, a need that must be met, a concept that must be understood before the audience can move to a next step. – M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric, pp. 38,26,27

If Jonathan hadn’t provided his own label for his books I think I would have opted for ‘satire’. I never read Gulliver’s Travels growing up but for many years I assumed it was merely a children’s book like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland not realising alice06that both were, in fact, satirical works, the former, a transparently anti-Whig satire whereas the latter lampooned the ordered, earnest world of Victorian England. But if you look at the recent films by Tim Burton and Rob Letterman all of that edge has gone. The stories still have their points to make – which is why they have survived when others have become dated – and that is why they continue and will continue to entertain when other biting works of satirical fiction have faded into obscurity. Ever heard of John Marston or Joseph Hall?

The thing about a lot of satirists is that they can be a bit aggressive, even downright vicious, but that’s not what we get here. In his book on the subject George Test writes:

Satire allows opportunities for creative verbal and formal gyrations that transform aggression into a social and artistic expression that satisfies peoples’ needs for play and humour. Satire then is in part an expression of playful aggression, a sportive assault.


The general attitude toward satire is comparable to that of members of a family toward a slightly disreputable relative, who though popular with children makes some of the adults a bit uncomfortable. – George Austin Test, Satire: Spirit and Art, pp.3-5

In 1961 a new musical opened in the West End called Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. It’s been described as “a thought-provoking tale about the fleeting nature of worldly success. The hero of the show, Littlechap, attempts to apply some braking effect on his world before it spins out of control.” The metaphor of an individual as the centre of his or her own universe is not a new one but it is a modern one, “a problem that requires attention right now,” to quote Killingsworth. This is where Jonathan Gould’s novella, Doodling, begins:

Neville Lansdowne fell off the world.

Actually, he did not so much fall off as let go. The world had been moving so quickly lately and Neville was finding it almost impossible to keep up.

It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when keeping up was not a problem; a time when the world was moving at a nice, leisurely speed and, a gentle walk had been sufficient. But then the world began to get faster. Suddenly, Neville found himself jogging, and then running. His cheeks became flushed and his lungs panted and puffed as they struggled to get the air he needed to maintain his pace.

Still faster and faster the world went. Neville’s life was like a never-ending hundred metre sprint. There was no way he could keep this going. As his legs turned to jelly and collapsed under him, Neville grasped in desperation for something to hold on to. A tree, a stick, a small crack in the footpath. He dug his fingernails in and gripped tightly as the world dragged him along, his hair flying wildly behind him and his legs kicking loosely at the air. His whole body strained and tears began to well in his eyes as the wind rushed against his face.

Slowly, surely, he could feel his grip loosening, could sense the strength departing from his fingers. He couldn’t hold on much longer. Any second now and the strain would be too much. His arms would break. His fingers would be ripped off. His whole body would snap into two. The pain was unbearable. Something had to give.

Neville let go.

For a couple of seconds, he lay, breathing slowly, while the strength flowed back into his body and the feeling returned to his arms. Then he looked up and saw the world spinning away into the darkness of space. Neville was seized with panic. He leapt up and began chasing after the world, trying to catch up with it again so he could get back on board. But he was too slow. Soon the world was nothing but a tiny dot, no bigger than a golf ball.

Neville stopped and watched as the world diminished into a pinhole of blue and then vanished. He was alone. All around him was nothingness. Neville shivered. He wasn’t used to such quiet. It felt strange and slightly unnerving. What could it mean? How should he feel? What was he to do?

Neville looked around. High above, the lights of the stars twinkled. To his left, a comet flashed past. To his right, a distant supernova flared in a sudden blaze of brightness. It was a beautiful sight; an everlasting silent night.

Suddenly Neville was overcome by a feeling of peace. No more desperately rushing to keep up. No more frantically clinging on for dear life. Neville didn’t need the world anymore. He was free.

I don’t know about you but I grew up with two contradictory sets of the laws of physics in my head. There were those that applied in the real world, the ones that stopped me spinning off into outer space like Neville does, irrespective of the fact that the world was whizzing round at a speed of about 67,000 miles per hour, and WileECoyotethen there were the laws of physics that applied to cartoon characters, most memorably Wile E. Coyote, for whom the effects of gravity would often pause to allow him a moment to reflect upon his fate before we see him plummet to the desert below, something which ought to have resulted in him shattering every bone in his body but which, in this reality, often left him little more than bruised and dazed. This is not the first time the laws of physics have been lampooned, however: Voltaire famously mocked these in his satirical novel Candide.

So what happens to Neville? Is this a dream or an allegory like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? (The Wikipedia article Political interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz makes interesting reading.) Or just a bit of nonsense to amuse the kids?

Floating around aimlessly in space might have been a refreshing change to his prior hectic life but there wouldn’t be much of a story here if that was all he did. After a bit Neville finds his way to an asteroid “about the size of a large house” and climbs aboard. Actually Jonathan says Neville “walked quickly to the asteroid” and we just accept that that is what he did. Of course once he’s there it was hard not to think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella, The Little Prince, whose home asteroid, Little Princeor "planet", was also the size of a house, has three volcanoes (two active, and one dormant) and a rose, among various other objects. Neville’s asteroid isn’t nearly as remarkable. What is notable is that one of the first things he does is decide he needs a country and since “countries need borders, [u]sing his heel, he marked out a series of lines on the dusty surface.” He decides to name the country Bolivia because that was a place he had always had an inkling to visit.

Question: Was Neville the first, or, perhaps, the only person to have found himself flung out of Earth’s orbit? Answer: No. After losing interest in his own asteroid, Neville trudges “away into the inky blackness of the universe. In search of a better place for a Neville.” Just as Gulliver makes his way through Lilliput and Blefuscu, Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg and Glubbdubdrib so Neville discovers that others have set up homes and communities amongst the stars. The first he encounters because he catches sight of an asteroid with “a flagpole with a small makeshift flag on the top, fluttering gently in the solar-breeze.” It’s the home of a small community who introduce themselves to him as follows:

“We, like you, are refugees from the world. … We, like you, could no longer handle the pace and the pressure. We, like you, have made the decision to escape the madness and to find here, on our asteroid, a far simpler lifestyle. A lifestyle you are more than welcome to join in.


“I don’t suppose you brought a toaster.”

Have you ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.?

Set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the desert of the south-western United States after a devastating nuclear war, the story spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it. – Wikipedia

Leibowitz had been an electrical engineer and the monks have been copying his blueprints, notes and memos by hand as if they are holy relics. The Holy Book of the Toaster People turns out to be Operating Instructions for the A367 Toasterama and they have been awaiting the arrival of the eponymous toaster. I seem to recall some Jews had a similar notion once. In her review of this book, Donna Brown also found herself referencing Voltaire; his famous quote from Letter to the author of The Three Impostors: "If God hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to invent Him."

I won’t list all the other asteroids Neville visits but he quickly realises that all is not rosy in paradise. And it’s not just that everyone has their own ideas as to what perfection should be like; no, there is a bigger problem that is going to affect them all:

[I]f the world kept on getting faster and faster, it would eventually break away from [the] gravitational pull [of the sun] and fly off into space. And if anything lay in its way? … The first thing the world would crash into once it had escaped its orbit [would be the asteroid field].

Neville realises that something must be done and it falls to him to rally the troops but, in much the same way as Alice had difficulty persuading people to do things in Wonderland, Neville encounters a similar intransigent bunch, entrenched in their ways and unwilling to listen to the facts.

flidderbugsA similar situation is faced by Kriffle in Jonathan’s second novella, Flidderbugs. Jonathan describes this book as “a sort of political satire/fable about a strange bunch of insects with some very peculiar obsessions.” Whereas the problem with Neville’s world – he never actually says it’s the Earth – is that it is spinning too fast; Kriffle’s tree – which is all the world he knows – is lopsided, sort of. Put it this way: it’s in danger of collapse. On one side of the tree, the side we are introduced to in the opening chapter, there is a problem with the leaves which are growing uncontrollably; this is the side of the tree where the Triplifer tribe live. On the other side, populated by the Quadrigons, the current ruling tribe (and hence those in possession of the shears), life is far more comfortable. The tribes disagree on just about everything but the most fundamental issue on which they cannot see eye to eye is with regard to how many points the leaves on the Krephiloff Tree should have: the Triplifers are adamant it is three, the Quadrigons insist it is four.

Now I don’t know a great deal about dendrology but all the trees I encountered growing up tended to have the same leaves on them no matter what side of them you encountered. So I assumed what we had here was a Nineteen Eighty-Four-type situation: two warring (okay, bickering) factions who don’t care what the truth is but just believe what they’re told. Perhaps the leaves actually had five points! But, no, that’s not the case. If it were then surely someone of the Quadrigons would pick up a leaf, count the points and realise that there were only three points or one of the Triplifers would do the same and realise that there were actually four. But that would be too easy.

Kriffle’s father Proggle is “proud leader of the Triplifer tribe” but he is getting old. He’s at his wits’ end with the leaf issue and intends to bring the matter up that very day at the Fleedenhall debate. His wife will have none of it and tells him to permit Kriffle go in his stead. As it happens, the leader of the Quadrigons and head of the Fliddercouncil, Farggle, is also unwell and so his daughter, Fargeeta, stands up in his place. The debate does not go well. Elections are not far off and it doesn’t look as if the Triplifers are going to have any chance of winning unless Kriffle can find support elsewhere. He heads off to the Florddenbureau with its Kafkaesque snaking corridors to try and find support from an old friend of his father’s, Brakliff, who has risen over the years from third-assistant-junior-secretary to first-higher-senior-official-over-secretary but Brakliff is unwilling to help him. Then Kriffle visits the academics at Flooderversity but things are not easy there either: Professor Skervvle is only interested in the essence of leaves; Professor Horkelo's specialty is how many leaves there are; Professor Yangbelu only cares about the concept of leaf and, much to the consternation of his esteemed colleagues, Professor Sklinger only studies bark.

Kriffle is about to despair until he accidentally runs into Fargeeta and decides radical action is called for:

Without even thinking, he grabbed Fargeeta by the claw and began pulling her away from the trunk and out along one of the branches that led to his side of the Tree.

It took her a few seconds to realise what was happening, but when she did, she began to scream:

“Help, help. I’m being ‘bugnapped.”

But it was too late. Kriffle was moving so fast and with such fierce determination that they were already well clear of her gang of supporters back at the trunk.

It didn’t take long before they reached the bristling mass of leaves. Kriffle hurriedly reached out, grabbing the first one he could find.

“Count the points,” he roared, thrusting it roughly in front of Fargeeta’s face.

She does. There are three. All her life she had been led to believe that the Triplifer tribe were liars or fools but now she has seen with her own eyes. But the truth is never that simple, is it? Besides, much as in Doodling, the ‘bugs have a much bigger problem. Oh, if only everyone had listened to crazy old Professor Sklinger.

Doodling and Flidderbugs are both charming novellas without a doubt. Jonathan says they’re not exclusively aimed at children but they are definitely books that could be read to children. The kids will enjoy the stories as simply funny stories; the adults will appreciate the subtext. I don’t particularly like the title Doodling. The reason Jonathan kept it was because he “liked the idea that the story evolved from [his] literary doodling” but it doesn’t really work for me. Other than that I have no problems with either book but of the two I personally preferred the first.

You can read excerpts from Doodling online here: Falling Off, A Toast to You, Taking Aim, Not So Peachy.


jonathan GouldJonathan Gould is a Melbourne-based writer, doodler and a confirmed and proud dag. These are not his first attempts to have work published and he has authored two children’s books in the past, A Right Royal Day and Madoop and the Mountain Mower; you can read a review of the latter here. Over the years, his writing has been compared to Douglas Adams, Monty Python, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, the Goons, Dr Seuss and even Enid Blyton – “in a good way,” he says. His next project is his first novel, Magnus Opum which he describes as, “An epic fantasy with a twist: Tolkien meets Dr Seuss.” Here’s a taster:

Far, far over the Mounji Mountains, past the shores of Lake Kroulchip where the boulcher fish bellow, across the misty, musty Plains of Plartoosis and beyond the depths of the dingy, dungy Drungledum Valley, lay the small homely village of Lower Kertoob.

And if you happened to be passing on a bright Tuesday afternoon, as spring slowly drifted into summer, there is a fair chance you would have seen Magnus Mandalora with his borse, out ploughing in his pflugberry field.

A borse, of course, was the primary beast of burden used by the Kertoobis, as the singular race who inhabited Lower Kertoob were known. It looked a little like a cow and a little like a pig and not an awful lot like a horse at all. However the most striking thing you would notice, if you should happen to see a borse for the first time, was that the two legs on the left were substantially shorter than the two legs on the right.

Not surprisingly, this meant that a borse was not the most practical sort of animal to use to pull a plough, displaying an annoying tendency to reel off to the left at the slightest notice. But although there were several other, far more suitable creatures, such as the powerful jingloo, the extraordinarily endurable truffelong and the seldom seen but much discussed diperagoff, none of these had ever been considered as an alternative. The Kertoobis were determined to stick to their borses, even if that meant ploughing a field was a constant battle to keep the wayward beasts going in anything vaguely resembling a straight line. That was just the way thing were done in Lower Kertoob, and once you got used to it, it really wasn’t such a difficult thing to manage. Unless, that is, you happened to be Magnus Mandalora on that particular Tuesday afternoon.

The basic theme of Magnus Opum is perception and how the various characters see each other.

Although Doodling and Flidderbugs are currently only available as ebooks Jonathan tells me that an Australian book chain has taken an interest in self-published authors and intends to promote both the ebooks and paperback versions thereof and so there, at least, you should be able to get your hand on a real book if you still haven’t succumbed to the pressure to buy a Kindle.

Further Reading

Writers And Their Chosen Settings – Jonathan Gould (the photo is actually of the former Scottish international footballer)

Kindle Author Interview: Jonathan Gould

Interview With Jonathan Gould


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this Jim. If I get as much pleasure out of reading the books then I'll be happy. For fear of sounding like I'm trying to pee in your pocket - you have a wonderful ability to tell a story about a story - and your knowledge of other relevant information/books/anecdotes is astounding (and a great form of education for individuals such as myself). It is also nice to know that Jonathon is an Aussie...clearly, more than football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars can be sourced from this great land Downunder. Best wishes for the festive season

Dave King said...

Like Accidentalwriter, I really enjoyed this read, and I do believe I would enjoy the book. If I see it on the shelves somewhere I shall definitely pick it up. Not sure if I will be more pro-active than that, though in obtaining it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I did too, Accidentalwriter although why you would want to pee in my pocket I have no idea. I’m really nowhere near as clever as I sound. I do the research and try and make it interesting. I mean of course I know stuff but the thing I’ve noticed about people is that they invariably assume that whatever you’re saying is only the tip of the iceberg. I remember talking to an old woman once about the Greek words for love which I talked about in my last article and she goes, “Oh, he knows Greek too,”—and for some reason in my head whenever I hear her she takes on Terry Jones’ fake woman’s voice—whereas that was my complete and total knowledge of Greek at the time and pretty much still is other than knowing the names for a few (not all) of the letters; twelve actually (I just checked) although I missed out Pi and Omega of all things to forget.

And, Dave, Jonathan’s just e-mailed me to say that deal fell through since I wrote this but he intends to investigate print options in the new year which I think would be a good idea. I’m quite sure these aren’t books I would have picked up in a shop and, to a certain extent, I can see why publishers might have puzzled over what to do with him—who exactly are his books aimed at? I feel much the same whenever I try and conceive my ideal reader. I come up with one: me.

Von said...

Ah yes!!Daggy. A wonderful word and the definition doesn't quite hit the complete mark.There is an element of affection and comfortableness about daggy, it's usual said with a half smile.When your best friend sees you in tracky dackys and says "You are a dag!" you know they love you!
Happy Christmas!

Jim Murdoch said...

I have a feeling when I was writing this that no explanation would be quite good enough, Von. I often slip in the odd Scottish word with a vague translation but it never really hits the mark. I mean how does one translate ‘wee nyaff’? It’s a term like ‘dag’, often used with some affection; tone really has a lot to go with it. Happy Christmas to you too.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent and interesting article. Some interesting books there to add to my 'to read' list. I enjoyed reading your comments about satire and genre too

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Juliet. Yes, I have to say it’s hard not to be drawn to these books. I was keen in this article to treat them seriously. It’s a bit too easy with material like this to dwell on the silliness and miss the point. Kids will appreciate that side of it but there’s more going on here.

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