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Pan Macmillan

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“As frequent listeners know, I will discuss anything and everything, and do” – read an extract from Free Association

Free AssociationMax Lurie’s navel-gazing podcast about his life has become an unexpected success. But its embellishments and inventions are starting to leak into his everyday life. As Max tries to navigate the grey areas between fact and fiction, things begin to spin out of control. He juggles real and imagined girlfriends, an illegally procured firearm, an unpredictable friendship with a homeless schizophrenic, his acerbic immigrant producer, his dying father, his famous childhood sweetheart, an unlikely romantic entanglement and his critical and growing audience. Can he keep all of these balls in the air and finally bring them safely to rest?

This story takes a deep and satiric dive into the worlds we imagine for ourselves and the lives we actually live, particularly in a time when our real and digital personas intersect and merge in chaotic ways.

Free Association casts a steely and comic eye on the great and small concerns of being human: the chances we take and miss, the pain of not fitting in, the fragility of the psyche, the unpredictability of love, the dull certainty of death, the importance of listening to others and the careening craziness of it all.

This is National Podcasting Network. Welcome to Free Association. This is, as always, your host Max Lurie.

Today, my loyal audience, is the one-year anniversary of this podcast.

That started as a lark, because the universe had decided that I was a failure as a novelist, and podcasting seemed like a way for me to escape a life of bitterness and regret. Which is almost certain to happen at some point anyway, but as of this moment my distributors tell me that the audience for Free Association has exceeded fifty thousand per episode. There is no one more surprised than I am, but there you have it.

So thank you. Keep downloading. Send in suggestions to www.npn.com/FreeAssociation.

But remember the rules.

I will not discuss my family, my friends, the Middle East or religion. I will not discuss particle physics (too hard), celebrities and their annoying lives, politicians and their bloated egos. I will not discuss history or sports. Nor diet fads, fashion, medieval literature or cooking.

Right. Sure. Ha.

As frequent listeners know, I will discuss anything and everything, and do. Things that might or might not have any thread, theme or relevance to
anything at all. Even the things about which I am woefully under-informed.

That’s the only vision for this podcast. My life and its frequent disappointments, your lives, the lives of others. Anything that gets my back up. Random observations. Anything that piques my interest.

And so a taking of stock is due because it is, after all, an anniversary. When I started this a year ago, I had no clue what I was doing. Which still remains stubbornly true, although I am now well exercised in the art of focused lack of direction. A number of people, including those nearest and dearest, have often asked me – what is Free Association about? Even those who have listened since the beginning.

I have no idea.

I crack open my skull every week and let everyone peer in.

The letters I receive make it clear that what sloshes around in there is in turn exasperating, funny, ignorant, surprising and annoying. And yet you continue to eavesdrop. Which supports a startlingly modest but reliable income. So I thank you again.

I have a theory about the success of this show. I am an insecure shell of a human with little confidence in myself or anyone else. I am constantly in a state of confusion and bewilderment.

Perhaps I have grown this audience because I make everyone feel better about themselves. Fifteen minutes listening to me ramble and rant leads to the inescapable conclusion that I suspect you all draw – your life is not as bad as that schmuck Lurie’s. You all feel better after listening to me complain. I may have invented a new type of psychology. Comparative Loser Analysis.

Spend fifteen minutes with someone unhappier than you, wallowing in greater misfortune, with less control of his life and circumstances, and you will be sure to feel a spring in your step.

You’re welcome.

On the up side. I have a new girlfriend. I won’t talk about her much, because not only will I jinx it, but if she ever listened to this podcast she would certainly turn tail and skedaddle. She does not listen to podcasts, she told me; she is too busy. Also, calling her my girlfriend is a dangerous play; there have been no such declarations. We did go on two dates. And we were indeed introduced by a trusted third party.

On the first date we went for dinner. I said, tell me about yourself. When she finished and was about to ask me about myself (this was something I wished to delay, lest she find my life story as dull as old cardboard), I said, tell me more about yourself. I did this three times and then the meal was over and we were a bit tipsy and she invited me to her apartment and maybe I will reveal more at another time. Stop prying.

The second date was a big music concert. A band and an audience. I hate stadium concerts. You park miles away and then you can’t find your seat and when you do someone is in it and then you have to go through a whole passive-aggressive number to sort it out. Then you realise that the stage is too far away and the musicians look like ants and the opening act is a waste of time because everyone around you is talking excitedly about the main event and then they come onstage to a great roar of the fans and everyone stands up which is the last time in the next three hours you will sit down.

The guy in front of you is huge and you stare at the pockmarked back of his neck and the disturbing pimple on the rim of his ear and the sound is so awful that even in those rare moments when the audiences quiets all you hear from these cheaper seats that you should never have bought is the bass and one of the cymbals and a slightly off-key backup singer. And then they leave the stage and are shrieked back for not one encore but four and then you stream out with tens of thousands of people and get stuck in a traffic jam in the parking area for sixty-five minutes.

She loved it.

We came back to my apartment where we made chai tea and watched two old episodes of Seinfeld and she fell asleep on my shoulder. I carried her to
bed and covered her up and slid chastely in beside her and waited. Some stuff happened later which is none of your business and the next morning she rummaged through my fridge and made me a hot breakfast, and kissed me on the forehead and texted me later and so I suppose she can sort of be called my girlfriend. Right?

Right?

Well, there must be some terrible mistake. Let’s not get too optimistic here. Because she is very attractive, in another league really. I expect this to be over soon. Perhaps I will hasten the event by showing my baser instincts, and then I can be resignedly alone again, where all is predictable, where expectation and reality coincide politely. I will keep you posted.

My father is dying. I have mentioned this before. I have struggled with whether I should talk to you about this. It is obviously a subject of great import and anxiety for me. I love my dad, or at least the man he used to be before, well … maybe I will save this for another time. I first have to wrestle the ethical dilemmas to the ground.

Can I make my father’s dying fodder for public consumption? At first pass this would seem like a monstrous show of disrespect and callousness. Perhaps. I will meditate on this.

But death, in both its specific and general incarnation, is a terrific subject – wide in its scope, deep in its consequence, loud and insistent in its certainty.

There is hardly a subject more important to us, I suspect. It hovers like airborne pestilence. Everything we do is an attempt to mute it, delay it. We take out life insurance, buy cars with safety features, drive close to the speed limit, don’t cross at the red light. Eat healthy foods, applaud scientists foraging in our cells and looking for ways to extend and protect us. We hope that our governments can use diplomacy instead of death to negotiate nasty disagreements with those people over there. We take pills, have the doctor’s number on speed dial, decide not to go white-water rafting, avoid travel to Syria. We support climate change reversal initiatives, because if we don’t we all drown or burn or asphyxiate. Death is fuel for at least half of the arts.

That and love, of course. But love is mutable. Death is not. Why is there not a podcast dedicated to death? It is the ultimate general-interest subject. Maybe I should change the admittedly nebulous recipe that makes up this podcast to an enthusiastic coverage of death and dying. The podcast could interview people with terminal diseases, extract all sorts of wisdom from their truncated hopes and dreams. Talk to doctors and health workers who do battle with the beast every day. Gently probe the bereft as they try to deal with loss. Perhaps a scientific round-up of what kills us daily. Bad food. Pollution. Not enough exercise. Murderers. Cars. Ageing. Stress. Poison. Wars. We could have an episode on famous eulogies. One on funerals. Another on afterlife mythologies. Great natural disasters and their tolls. Euthanasia. Genocide. Patricide. Infanticide. Oh, and an episode on the lighter side of death. I refuse to believe that there is no humour somewhere.

We can laugh at death, can’t we?

Maybe the most amusing last words. Or most inept attempts at suicide. Actually, there are a number of sites dedicated to death jokes (I checked) but they aren’t very funny. Death is a very tough nut to crack in the humour department.

I will talk to my producer, Bongani. My sponsors and distributor. Change this podcast from general-purpose navel-gazing, solipsistic nonsense to a wide-ranging, sensitive and well-considered investigation of death and its dark omens and endless damage. I would change the name of the podcast from Free Association to, what? The End – An Exploration. Or Death – A Miscellany.

No, these are terrible. Perhaps I could ask you to send in your suggestions for a podcast title.

I am aware that one of challenges is that much research is required. Research is not really my cup of tea, as you know. Maybe Bongani will do it for me. However, even given my poor record in the research game, I do try to tell you something new every now and again.

So here it is.

Cloning. Remember cloning? Remember Dolly the sheep? Cloned 1996? Cloning pops up in the news occasionally, usually via some rumour that a demented North Korean lab is trying to clone Kim Jong-II. Then there is a big outcry, and the news cycle moves on. So I now find out that polo pony cloning is well under way. One of the great polo ponies of all time, the Argentinian horse called Aiken Cura (who was euthanised with a broken leg ten years ago) was cloned by his rider, a really famous player by the name of Combasio. The cloned polo pony will be in competition next year. I am so taken aback by this news snippet that I find myself, unexpectedly and unusually, stunned mute.

My twin brother Frank, of whom I have spoken often and who is unlike me in every way other than physical, called me from London, where he lives and works as an economist in one of the huge tech companies. I thought economists only worked for banks. But this company is so large that they have a staff economist. Go figure. He urged me to find a new career.

He said – Max, podcasts are going the way of the music industry, and podcasters are going the way of musicians.
I said – explain this to me.
He said – millions of musicians, no way for them to make a living, even the good ones.
I said – explain this to me.
He said – free distribution and piracy without consequence and endless inexpensive content creation by many talented people – ergo, no commercial proposition.
I said – how so?
He said – the podcast industry will become structurally over-efficient, just like the music business, and you can only make money in inefficient markets.
I said – ‘structurally over-efficient’? I have no idea what you are talking about.
He said – yes, you do.
He is very unlike me, Frank. We agree on very little. But he is no fool.

So anyway.

A one-year anniversary. A robust and growing listenership, many of whom like the show. Oh, there are a few malcontents who send nasty comments to the website, but by and large we seem to be okay. Maybe more than a few.

A quaint but dependable pay cheque. And a new girlfriend, no matter how transient.

Carpe diem before the other shoe drops.

This show is produced by the inimitable Bongani Maposa. Until next week, this is Max Lurie, and this is Free Association from the National Podcasting Network.

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