The State of Australian Reality: Roanna Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident and Anthony Macris’ Inexperience and other stories

Posted on September 19, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by David Thomas Henry Wright
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

Roanna Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident and Anthony Macris’ Inexperience and other stories are both short(er) story collections. Both were published in 2016 by University of Western Australia Publishing. Both explore contemporary definitions of Australian-ness and all that does (and does not) entail. Both highlight the importance and necessity for the short(er) story form as a requisite cultural space to reconfigure and reimagine the kaleidoscopic possibilities of Australian reality and fiction.

Australian permanent residents are holders of a P.R. visa who may remain in the country indefinitely, but are not citizens. Such status is the circumstance (or goal) of the numerous Sydney Goan Catholics of Gonsalves’ collection, The Permanent Resident. These characters include: a recent divorcee who has a boozy night out; a medical receptionist who debates taking the blame for a doctor’s mistake, and a woman who struggles to find Sichuan peppercorns at a local shopping centre on Easter morning. To summarise these stories is to reduce them to a list of everyday events mixed with a few scandalous headlines. Yet Gonsalves has an incredible ability to make these seemingly mundane actions utterly surprising: not only her protagonists’ choices, but the moral judgement she bestows upon them.

‘Curry Muncher 2.0’, for example, details the events surrounding Vincent, an international student from Bombay who is brutally beaten at a train station. Beyond the cruelty and kinesis of the violence, it is the perspective and eventual epiphanies of the narrator (also an international student, a co-worker in the same Indian restaurant who lives in the same Sydney suburb) that inflict the deepest impression. Reflecting on Vincent’s physical and verbal abuse, the narrator undermines the insult ‘curry muncher’, noting: ‘The way I understood it, curry, being a liquid, could be eaten with rice or one could even drink it as one did rasam and even sambhar. But there was no way one could munch curry as if it were a biscuit.’ (59) Later, when attempting to find a police station to report the crime, the injured Vincent refuses to let her walk home. The narrator notes: ‘I could not argue with the chivalry of a victim’. (62) Such narratorial wisdom, the delivery of which fluctuates between humourous and heart-breaking, pervades all stories in the collection, conferring them with aching poignancy. Tragicomic observations mixed with the occasional impressionistic metaphor illumine her characters’ entire souls. In ‘CIA (Australia)’, for example, the narrator describes the Aussie accent ‘like a waterfall, unable to be captured as it rushed over a rocky precipice’. (93) On occasion, this combination of specific detail, confident minimal action, intimate perspective, defamiliarised locale, and a penchant for the mot juste matches Alice Munro at her best.

‘The Teller in the Tale’ depicts the difficulty (literally and figuratively) for immigrants to comprehend and incorporate the narratives of their parents. The story echoes (or rather, is a variation on) the events in Nam Le’s Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice (2012).[1] The collection also includes notable experiments. ‘Christmas 2012’, for example, is a wry portrait of an Australian-Indian family sitting down to an ‘Australian’ Christmas dinner. ‘First Person’, a piece of flash fiction, scrambles text from randomly selected tourist websites providing information about Indigenous culture. The result is an effective meditation on the fogginess of contemporary understanding of Indigenous communities.

For the most part, however, Gonsalves’ collection opts for realism (in the Chekhovian sense of the word), and in this regard The Permanent Resident is a resounding success. In Two Directions for the Novel, Zadie Smith writes:

In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene. These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.[2]

Like most of Gonsalves’ collection, Macris’ Inexperience and other stories begins with a similar approach towards lyrical realist narrative, but mid-way abandons these conventions.

This is a curious work that defies typical classification. The first half of the book, titled ‘Inexperience’, depicts the relationship struggles of a middle-class Australian couple as they attempt to travel through Europe. The second half, titled ‘Quiet Achievers’, is broken into three ‘other’ stories. The first, ‘Nest Egg’, details with great pedantry and relentlessness the narrator’s plan to save (or hoard) money. The second, ‘Triumph of the Will’, follows a shopkeeper’s struggles as a recently erected mall steals his customers and devours his profits. The final story, ‘The Quiet Achiever’, depicts the visits to a clinic where the narrator’s cousin has been driven to a nervous breakdown by the failure of his business.

The acknowledgements page reveals that the text has been assembled from works written and published in various journals (Southerly, Australian Writing Now, Antipodes, etc.) over the course of several years. The novella ‘Inexperience’ convenes three short stories: ‘The Ham Museum’, ‘Cloudscape with Cassette Tape and Duracells’, and ‘Sydney-Madrid’. While at times the bricolage is noticeable, the novella follows the conventions of traditional realism. An Australian couple go to Spain (via Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci) and then Paris. Upon arrival, the narrator delights at the stylish Italian toilets, relishing his ability to piss in and on style. But European tourism, like his relationship and ironic sense of humour, fails to deliver. On the level of drama (and indeed, on the level of travelogue), the work is satisfying enough. But when contrasted with the accompanying short story cycle, the first section takes on a deeper sadness. The magic of Inexperience and other stories lies in its wider construction and contrasts.

Towards the end of ‘Inexperience’, the narrator writes: ‘you didn’t have to work so hard to be middle class in Australia. Being middle class in Europe looked like a real chore, with bad weather to boot’. (107) In a traditional novel, this would be the end of the first act of a romantic tale or a potent educational moment in the development of a Bildungsroman. In Inexperience’, however, the story simply ends with a bittersweet tierce de Picardie as the narrator recalls happier moments from his failed relationship. In the stories that follow, romance as well as classical notions of ‘character’ are abandoned. Inexperience and other stories describes itself as ‘a novella and accompanying story cycle’. Certainly, the works that follow ‘Inexperience’ provide accompaniment, or perhaps counter-melodies, to the initial refrain. The voice that emerges, constructing the hypothetical ‘nest egg’, can barely be regarded as ‘fiction’; it is reminiscent of the paragraphless prose of Thomas Bernhard or William Gaddis’s posthumously published Agapē Agape (2002), an extended bombast of stream-of-consciousness that depicts ‘the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look’.[3] One even wonders if the protagonist of ‘Inexperience’ is still narrating. Is he also the subject of ‘The Quiet Achiever’? Or does the text simply have an evolving style and force of its own?

‘Triumph of the Will’ differs again, depicting a down-on-his-luck character, similar to Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, [4] though the beauty of the character seems absent. As Bellow’s novella (and indeed, The Permanent Resident) shows, the classical conventions of literary realism still have much to offer. The ‘Quiet Achievers’ half of Inexperience and other stories, however, is decidedly not romantic, thus setting up contrasts within the work as a whole, making it all the more tragic.

While The Permanent Resident displays the power of lyrical realism as a mode to depict Australian reality, Inexperience and other stories hints at new perspectives for the literary form. In addition, the daring combination of tradition and experimentation displayed in both collections emphasises the extent to which the short story form is taking the forefront in leading Australian literary culture.

 

[1] Nam Le, The Boat. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2008.
[2] Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind. Hamish Hamilton: London, 2009, 71.
[3] William Gaddis, Agapē Agape. Viking Penguin: New York, 2002, p 2.
[4] Saul Bellow, Seize the Day. Viking: New York, 1956.

The Permanent Resident
Roanna Gonsalves
UWAP, 2016
280 pages, $24.99

Inexperience and other stories
Anthony Macris
UWAP, 2016
230 pages, $24.99

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David Thomas Henry Wright has been published in Southerly and Seizure. Recently, he was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards inaugural Digital Literature Award. He was also shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the Viva La Novella Award, and the Overland VU Short Story Prize. He has a Masters from The University of Edinburgh and has lectured at China’s top university, Tsinghua, where he developed courses in Creative Writing and Australian Literature. He co-edited Westerly: New Creative and is currently a PhD candidate at Murdoch. Find more from David at his website.

 

 

MODERNITY & INEXPERIENCE: an interview with Anthony Macris

Posted on November 25, 2016 by in Lighthouse Yarns

am-author-photo-bw-copyThere are trends in publishing, that is undeniable, but some writers refuse to do anything other than go their own way. Enter Anthony Macris.

Macris is an Australian writer and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. His first novel in the Capital series, Capital, Volume One, won him a listing as Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist 1998, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Southeast Asian section) Best First Book 1998. His book reviews, articles and features have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Griffith Review and The Bulletin for over a decade. He is also the author of When Horse Became Saw, his family’s inspirational story and a powerful evocation of the world of autism, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Non-fiction  category.

Published in 2016, Inexperience and Other Stories (University of Western Australia Press) is his latest work. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Macris charts laconically the impersonality of modern urban life, loneliness in a crowded world, and the absence of ideals, beliefs, commitments’.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations on the publication of Inexperience and Other Stories. What was the motivation for the collection?

MACRIS

Thanks for that. With Inexperience the novella I wanted to write about the couple and about love. It’s a theme that’s always fascinated me: what holds people together, two people who have at one point ‘chosen’ each other, and what can drive them apart. So that’s at the core of it. My couple in this instance are a standard boy/girl couple in their mid twenties, so you get that sense of youth, but youth that’s also embarking on major life decisions. I also wanted to write about this notion of going on a grand adventure that doesn’t quite live up to expectations: hence the title Inexperience. So, my young couple save and save for this long European trip that they think will be some kind of transcendent experience in itself, and it doesn’t quite turn out like that. I was originally going to call it Transcendence, but I thought that was a bit much.

That’s at the core of it: the way we strive to raise ourselves up, make ourselves more than who we are. It’s a wonderful, noble and fraught thing. We all do it one way or another, in small ways, in big ways. We raise ourselves up, we fall, we do it alone, we do it together, we have a stumble, we come crashing down from a very great height, we have the best of intentions, we do it out of vanity: the combinations are endless. But it’s all a learning process, one that never ends. I finally decided on Inexperience as the title because I thought that was more concrete: it’s more humble, more of this world. It’s the moment of stumbling, of not getting it quite right, of falling that little bit short because either the situation is bigger than you are, or you’re just not quite up to it at whichever stage of your life you’re in. So that’s the kind of thematic big picture.

I also wanted to write about what it means to be Australian. Our young heroes set off to Europe quite innocent and wide-eyed. They seem to think that everyone will see them as the fresh young cousins of the Anglo-sphere, first worlders like the American or Brits, but with none of the politically inconvenient baggage. They soon find that’s not really the case all the time, that not everyone sees Australians – at that general, national level – as the benevolent citizens of some far-flung Arcadia.

INTERVIEWER

Inexperience is a wonderful title, especially in terms of hinting at the idea of never knowing enough to get by. What attracts you to the novella form?

MACRIS

Thanks for those kinds words about the title. I wanted something pretty straightforward to sum up the theme, and that one came pretty easily, which was good: I usually struggle with titles. As for the novella form: well, different kinds of stories require different degrees of development. You have to gauge how big the story is and fit it to the appropriate length. This one had a limited cast, the two romantic leads, and a fairly simple story without a subplot, so I think you can only go so far with that. But I also wanted more than short story length so I could develop another level of complexity: how I told the story.

One of things I try to do in my work is tell interesting stories, but to try and tell them in fresh and interesting ways. Whether I succeed or not is for others to judge I suppose, but I’m always looking to do things at a bit of angle. I still want the story to be clear, to have central conflicts with forward movement, etc, but that doesn’t always come out in the standard way. I think this can lead to thinking my work is a bit disjointed or lacking in coherence, but I think it’s just because I’m doing something a little unexpected.

For example, the novella Inexperience is divided into two spheres: the heavenly sphere and the earthly sphere. This compositional element finds its core expression in the painting my couple sees in Toledo, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, which is all angels and swirling clouds in the top half, all flesh-blood men below. So the story’s events and settings all reflect shuttling between these two spheres: the banalities of travel and the transcendence of art; the mundanity of the everyday that forms the life of any couple, and the sublime moments of love that make it all worthwhile. Throughout the novella these spheres intermingle in unexpected and sometimes ironic ways. The story’s design in this instance called for something shorter than a novel so all this could be controlled adequately: it was quite fiddly to do, or at least I found it so. But that’s one thing I’m always trying to do in my work. Find a form that embodies the theme. I think that’s one way you can get more innovative forms.

INTERVIEWER

Inexperience begins: ‘We were in Australia, in shabby modernity, and we were restless, unbearably restless. So we decided to go to Europe. Exhausted, decaying Europe’. What do you think drives your ongoing interest in the averageness of Western life?

MACRIS

I’ve always been interested in the way experience is shaped by pre-existing social forms that determine our lives, that become the templates for our experiences. So, in Inexperience, we get a classic rite of passage relevant to this particular group: in my couple’s case, the cultural pilgrimage that ‘new worlders’ like Australians make to mother Europe. It’s as if we plot our individuality on these pre-existing grids. So there’s this duality that fascinates me: experiences that are touted as unique, but are underwritten by a form that is just about guaranteed to make them banal: sometimes they’re ultimately commodities, even the most sublime experiences.

So when my couple finally front up to this beautiful ancient church in Toledo to see the astonishing painting that is the ‘Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, they have to get past a cash register first. I know this sounds all very disenchanting, that we’re stuck with a familiar position that says the act of commercializing everything degrades everything. Now, I’m always wary of any totalising argument. So let’s just say there are degrees (there’s some grudging optimism for you!). But I’d still argue that, for the most part, the process of commodification does create at the very least a kind of unease, a conflictedness that infects just about everything it touches.

inexp_revisedI might just say a few words about the opening line you’ve quoted: it’s been appearing a lot in the reviews, which I think I’m happy about. I wanted to have a grand, sweeping opening, something quite Olympian, but also tongue-in-cheek. I mean, Australia and Europe are disposed of in sentence. I must have re-written that line 50 times. I’ve always liked this idea of a first sentence that contains the whole narrative in moment of foreshadowing: it’s a formal nod – albeit a very oblique one – to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But there’s a key phrase in the opening sentence that speaks to the notion you’ve raised of western averageness: ‘shabby modernity’. Inexperience the novella is set – as is the whole collection – in the 1980s. This is an interesting decade, and I think somewhat neglected. It’s not quite old enough to be historical yet. (I read a great line somewhere that said nothing is as dated as the recent past.) But I find it a very interesting decade, a real ugly duckling period. Australia hadn’t yet reinvented itself as the glittering postmodern entity it thinks of itself today. The tug of war had started, but in those pre-internet, pre-social media days, I’d say that it was still an entity of modernity, and one not quite sure of where it was going.

There’s one feature of the Australian suburbs that sums up this notion of shabby modernity for me. You know those small suburban shopping strips, very generic, just a small row of shops, a newsagent, a hairdresser, a fish and chip shop, a small bottle shop? Just one long building made of brick, lots of glass and aluminium, built in the 1950s, that always seemed to have looked downtrodden from the moment they went up? That’s exactly what I mean by shabby modernity. That’s where, as Australians, a lot of us come from, and if we didn’t directly, it still forms a substratum to our shared experience. And these places are still everywhere in the suburbs. They’ve got a kind of stark, sobering truth to them I like.

That’s why I featured that setting in one of the collection’s stories, ‘Triumph of the Will’. I wanted to get across this sense of Australia emerging out of some staid, tail-end modernity, and into the uncertainties of a globalised postmodernism. I see the social context of the stories as a whole straddling those two worlds. My characters Carol and her boyfriend are, at this stage of their lives, caught in between these worlds. That’s where their hopes and dreams and ambitions are being played out. And they don’t even know it. Later, in my novel Great Western Highway, I push a similar couple along the timeline a little more: into the 1990s, and into a postmodernity in full swing.

INTERVIEWER

What do you enjoy most about the shorter form?

MACRIS

Short stories are an incredible challenge and I’m in awe of those writers who can do them well again and again: Maupassant, Chekhov, and Flannery O’Connor, to name just a few. For me, at any rate, as soon as you start writing a short story, it’s as if a pistol has gone off and you’re already racing for the finish line. You’ve got to do so much at once for it to work: establish voice, the characters, some kind of situation or conflict, the style or diction you want, and so on. You don’t have the novelist’s luxury of seeing how it will all go, of writing into things for a while in the hope that things will reveal themselves.

To write an effective short story I think you need to be quite specific about what you want to achieve from the start. And that’s a great discipline in itself, formulating something concrete in your mind, then executing it. Of course it’s not always as simple as that: there can be this mass of crisscrossing paths between the thought and the execution. But as an exercise in task setting, there’s nothing quite like subjecting yourself to the rigour needed to pull off a decent short story.

In Inexperience, a big influence on my approach for a couple of the stories was Joyce’s Dubliners, which I think contains one of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘Eveline’. I love its blend of pathos, drama, and stillness. I also love its contrast of crystalline poetic diction and authenticity of voice, and the way Joyce brings those factors to bear on the quiet desperation of his characters. It’s just an astonishing piece and a real touchstone for me when I think about the short story form. This kind of influence – definitely only in the aspirational mode! – is at work on the two last stories, ‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘The Quiet Achiever’. The influences on the longer story, ‘The Nest Egg’, are different, and somewhat more experimental, for want of a better term.

I see ‘The Nest Egg’ as a kind of cross between Samuel Beckett and Descartes. I remember being struck by reading Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ when I did philosophy as an undergraduate at Sydney University. I liked this idea of conducting a self-critique wherein you try to answer some fundamental question about existence. So instead of posing the question of how do I know I exist, which gives us the famous cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, I wanted to pose the foundational question: what do I need to do to exist in a material, economic sense? This was an early attempt to explore the theme of capital and market forces in my work. Now, I’m a fiction writer: I didn’t want to write a philosophical essay. So the kind of language I looked to was that of Samuel Beckett, a kind of interior monologue that glides between image and reflection without ever quite settling on either as a dominant mode.

capital_volume_one_cover_1024x1024Also, with ‘The Nest Egg’, I wanted to try to structure something that had forward movement, that would keep the reader wanting to turn the page, but that didn’t rely on the traditional machinery of plot or story. I’m always looking for ways to do this. I like the notion that the act of reading draws you on and on. A lot of experimental approaches dispense with this as nearly a badge of honour: we don’t need that stuff, language or thought or whatever, is enough in itself. So in some ways I’m rebelling against this standard type of experimentation by trying to find a way of maintaining compelling forward movement, though not necessarily with traditional story dynamics. I tried this again on a bigger scale in my first novel, Capital, Volume One.

That’s another great thing about short stories. You’re not making a huge time commitment on any individual piece (not years, at any rate, as you do for a novel), so you can treat them like mini-laboratories to try things out.

INTERVIEWER

You have been an active writer for a significant period of time now. Has your overall ambition – or writerly project – changed?

MACRIS

Ambition is an interesting word. I think a lot about it. In Inexperience and Other Stories, in some of the very early work it contains, I see a tremendous energy there, the energy of youthful ambition. I can feel an almost unbearable pressure behind those pages, as if all my hopes and desires as an artist are pressing from behind but can’t quite get through. But, then again, I suppose it always feels like that. I’ve always only ever wanted to make beautiful, inspiring, complex things. It’s a very curious drive. It’s central to who I am. In the periods of my life when I haven’t been able to do it – for example some long stretches when I’ve had to raise money for my son’s therapy – I’ve been so utterly miserable life hasn’t seemed worth living.

There have been certain moments in my life where this drive to make art was revealed to me. I remember walking home from school one day, I must have been 11 or 12. I was walking along, lost in my own thoughts and senses. And I had this sudden awareness of the combined power of the mind and of sensing to produce things, to make things. It was a very odd moment. I realised that you not only passively received the world, but that your mind and senses were active in constructing it. And that if this was the case, then you could make, do, or think anything. The vehicle for this kind of reverse projection was art. These were the blank screens you could project your version of the world on. These were the empty vessels you could fill with your thoughts, your perceptions, your senses. Now I know this sounds a bit much for a boy that age, and I’m of course articulating it in ways that a boy that age wouldn’t, couldn’t, but I’ve thought about that moment for decades, and this is the first time I’ve tried to articulate it. That moment was a turning point in my life. The whole prospect of it was thrilling, intoxicating, utterly empowering.

Now, what is that drive? That fundamental drive to make art? Where does it come from? I wouldn’t have a clue. So, to finally answer your question, it would appear that in one sense nothing for me has ever changed. There’s only been this desire to make these projections, to fashion these artefacts of words that somehow capture the particular world I’m trying to create.

It’s all very well to start out with such pureness of heart, but soon you find that your drives have to be channelled into a chosen art form and the cultural and market forces that shape it. You need to pick themes, forms, make decisions about your audience, and about the kind of writer you want to be. The stories in Inexperience and Other Stories are, for the most part, the first full attempt I made to turn myself into a real writer, someone who was trying to say something they thought was of importance to an audience who might want to listen. And it’s interesting how the themes I go on to develop later – on a much larger scale in the Capital novels and in When Horse Became Saw – are pretty much all there. I think they basically come down to two: love and market forces. It doesn’t seem a lot, does it? At least I’m not just a one-trick pony: I’ve got two!

But there is a flipside to this: I also think my work has changed a lot over the years. If you look at the trajectory that goes through from Inexperience to the Capital novels, in one way it’s a thinking through of finding new narrative forms that can capture larger developments in a world driven by market forces. And I use a range of tools derived from various literary movements to fashion something of my own that can grasp that: in that trajectory there’s the self-conscious, modernist commitment to making it new, to shaping a new novelistic language to capture new realities.

9780143566663When Horse Became Saw is somewhat different. It’s a melding of realist and essayistic forms: the best name for it is probably creative non-fiction, to use a term that’s currently being bandied about. When Horse Became Saw was born of a kind of parental rage at how badly we let down our children with disabilities: in my case severe autism. It’s a much more emotional book. I call it my Aristotelian book: driven by pity and fear. It was a book in which I wanted to communicate with a large audience, so I put aside my usual baroque narrative machinery. It was a liberating experience, and it’s a book I’m very proud of, but I still like to think it does something interesting with form: I can’t seem to stop myself trying to do something different. Nevertheless, it was still a step outside the trajectory of my main work. I’m back to that now.

I’ve been working on the third part of Capital for some years, but it’s slow going. The Capital novels just take forever. It’s a return to my early childhood, part of the great looking back that overcomes you with time, that rises behind you in a great cresting wave of the past. You shouldn’t live in its shadow, but it can be hard not to. It’s an odd thing to do, to create works that draw from different periods of your life. Recently there have been days I’ve spent writing when I’ve become seven years old, and I’m amazed when a man in his mid-50s stares back at me from the mirror.

 

You can purchase Anthony’s latest book, Inexperience and Other Stories from University of Western Australia Publishing.

 

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Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis, 2012)

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis, 2012)

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce, Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award. His previous novella, I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year.

In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Featherstone has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains) and Bundanon (Shoalhaven River); in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. On a contract basis he currently facilitates the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, which is funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au

Departure Gate (Anthony Macris)

Posted on April 9, 2013 by in Novel Excerpts

Departure Gate (Anthony Macris)

Tube empty 2Christina’s gone. In the corner of the bedroom are the cardboard cartons to be sent on to Brisbane, where she’s gone to be with her family again. The day after she leaves the deliveryman comes to pick them up. He’s got a sandy-coloured goatee and smells of beer. He’s on his own, the cartons are heavy, so you offer to help. Half an hour later they’re all gone. You sit on a stool beside the now-empty corner and notice one of her blond hairs on your jumper, the one she knitted with her mother and her grandmother. You gently pull at it, but it has somehow become tangled in the woollen threads. You tug it out a short, sharp movement as if you were pulling a hair off your own head.

Over the next few weeks you’ll find them everywhere, these strands of fine blond hair. Sometimes they’re in unlikely places: resting on a window sill, caught under a chair leg. But most often they’re entwined in your clothes. You open your wardrobe, pick out something to wear, and there one is, snagged around a shirt button, snarled in a sock. Of course you don’t keep them, but it feels wrong to put them in the bin. You end up opening the window and letting the wind take them from your fingers.

Your flat is three rooms at the top of a large Edwardian house. It’s made up of a kitchen, a sitting room, and a bedroom, flanked by a long corridor. The toilet is out on the landing. You rent the place from Frank and Karen, a middle-aged couple who live in the rest of the building. They’ve been project officers for the local council all their working lives, and are model landlords: they never make you feel like a tenant. You like your flat. It’s pleasantly shabby and reasonably functional and, up there on the third floor, the windows are always full of sky. With its high white walls and black-painted floorboards, it feels like one of those contemporary art spaces that shifts from rundown building to rundown building until they either go mainstream or fizzle out.

The place has one major quirk. There’s no bathroom, so the bathtub is in the kitchen. And the bathtub is a quirk in itself. It’s short, squat and very deep with a moulded step that you sit on, the enamel worn thin by successive tenants. The kitchen is quite small, and fat from the cooker – not stove, cooker, you’re in London – collects on the bathtub’s rim. You’re continually wiping it away, this spray of fatty droplets from chops, sausages, bacon, and whatever else you cook. You hate the constant mix of substances: bread crumbs in the soap caddy, specks of dry shampoo on the oven door. It never fails to remind you how broke you are, how you don’t even have enough money to get back to Australia. In six months your visa will run out, and there’s no hope of an extension.

You’re broke because you’re unemployed, and you’re unemployed because of the impending war in the Gulf. Two weeks ago a tense-looking Sue, the head teacher of the English Language School you worked at, asked you into her office. You weren’t surprised when she told you that projected enrolments weren’t looking good, and that it wouldn’t be possible to keep you on. She began to give the obvious explanation, but you told her there was no need. You didn’t need to be reminded that ever since Bush and Thatcher had vowed to throw Saddam out of Kuwait, students had stopped coming in droves. The recent announcement of the UN Resolution authorising ‘all means necessary’, accompanied by the mobilisation of a global army ready to attack Iraq, hadn’t helped matters: it looked certain to be a winter of empty classrooms.

When you collect your last pay you find it fattened out with a two-week bonus, which at least softens the blow. Still, things are looking grim. You’re a foreigner in this country, so you can’t go on the dole. But even if you had the money for a ticket home, you don’t want to go just yet. A dose of self-reliance will be character building, you tell yourself. Just what the Lady ordered.

You spend your days hammering out job applications on the portable Remington a friend lent you. Your typing isn’t very good. It’s fast but not accurate, so you waste what seems like hours in stationery stores finding the best value paper, weighing up the pros and cons of correction ribbon over liquid paper. In your covering letters you don’t take any risks and are always careful to obey British conventions. You never ‘apply for a position’, you always ‘seek a post’.

It comes back to you again and again, the final incident that triggered Christina’s departure. You banged your shoe up against the rusting iron picture frame she’d left in the corridor, and sliced a large piece of leather off the toe. Your shoes weren’t exactly new, they weren’t even all that comfortable, but they were your Bond Street brogues, the only good pair you had. You’d always hated that stupid frame. God knows where she’d found it; it was so far gone it looked like it had been trawled up from the seabed. It had been standing in the narrow corridor for weeks, shedding huge flakes of rust, generally making a nuisance of itself. The sight of it, and the sight of your wounded shoe, filled you with rage. You kicked the stupid thing twice, three times, hoping it would collapse. It was surprisingly strong and each kick damaged your shoe even more. With a great effort of will you stopped, then stared down at the mess you’d made. The gouges in the leather were flesh-coloured against the black shoe polish. Then suddenly, something inside you snapped.

You kept very calm, walked down the corridor and opened the door to the bedroom. Positioned at the back of the flat, it had windows on three sides. In the clear winter light Christina was sitting at her worktable, gazing out the window. She was working on her sky diary, a large sheet of gridded paper whose squares she filled in everyday with a different colour, a colour that never actually resembled the sky, but, as she had told you, her particular interpretation of it. You started shouting at her, my shoe, look what you’ve done to my shoe, it’s ruined, it’s fucking ruined, that stupid frame, I told you not to leave it in the corridor, you know I’m clumsy, and now look at my shoe. She looks up at you, silent, waiting for you to stop, and as her ears flinch, as her eyes lose their dreamy lustre and brace themselves against your anger, you know that you have lost her.

In three weeks she’s gone. Until she leaves you continue to share the bed, an enormous, lumpy monster that stands on claw-like wooden legs and pushes you up towards the ceiling. You make love like you’ve never made love before, every touch your last. She’s never seemed more precious, more beautiful. One night when you’re fucking doggie style, her cheek pressed into the pillow, she weeps and starts to tear at her hair. You have to stop her ripping out great handfuls. Afterwards you know it’s better not to mention it. This is her only lapse, and for the rest of the time she’s completely calm, nearly serene, biding her time until she steps on the plane, wanting to make it as good as it can be.

The day of her departure arrives. It’s a late evening flight, which gives you time to have an early dinner. You make roast chicken with all the trimmings, her favourite. You don’t talk much during the meal, so it’s all over much too quickly, and when she offers to wash up you tell her not to be silly, you’ll do it later. You lug her suitcase through the quiet suburban evening, first to British Rail, and then onto the Piccadilly Line for the long haul to Heathrow.

Terminal Four is a madhouse of queues and security guards. It swallows you both alive, but you’re determined to see her off like any ardent lover. She checks in and you follow her across the squiggle-patterned carpet, the roar of the terminal making it impossible for you to really feel her presence for the last time. In front of the international departure gate you kiss and embrace and dissolve into tears, surrounded by a United Nations of different races toting the latest cabin baggage. You’ve been together for seven years. You are 29, she is 26. Three years age difference, a kind of golden mean, a comforting statistical average because we all know that men are less mature than women and need to be a little older to sustain any kind of relationship. She’s wearing her leopard-skin coat. It’s the last thing you see, the spots on the back of her leopard-skin coat, as she disappears through the metal detector. You don’t stay to watch the plane leave.

You catch the Tube home. It’s around 11.30 p.m. and the train is nearly empty. Without its usual crush of passengers, the carriage feels as light as an empty drink can. It shakes wildly as it hurls itself between the outer stations. You sit swaying in the clatter and din, staring at the line map stuck on the curve towards the ceiling. You randomly count down the stations: Hatton Cross, Hounslow West, Osterly, Chiswick Park, Stamford Brook, Hammersmith, Knightsbridge, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden.

You’ve never been able to imagine, riding in that glinting carriage light, the boroughs of London pressing down above you. You can only ever imagine a blank space, an empty plain stretching in all directions, and you are always amazed when you step off the escalator and find yourself in the busy high streets.

 *

This is an excerpt from Great Western Highway, the second novel by Anthony Macris in the Capital series. It was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2012; read the Verity La review here. A revised edition of the first novel in the series, Capital, Volume One, will be published by UWAP mid-2013.

 

Just a Little Bit Brilliant:
Anthony Macris' Great Western Highway - a love story

Posted on March 19, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Just a Little Bit Brilliant: <br />Anthony Macris' Great Western Highway - a love story

greatwesternhighway_web_mainEdnBy Tristan Foster

One thing is clear: we live in strange times. The influence of the market has seeped into every facet – every wrinkle – of our existence, leaving the individual spliced and atomised and spliced again. But, if who we are indeed so fragmented, how do we love and be loved back? Forget about connecting with someone else, how do you connect with yourself? The reach of market forces of course extends to the manufacture of art and, indeed, the production of literature; how, then, do you go about writing a novel on these ideas?

Anthony Macris attempts to answer these questions with his second novel, Great Western Highway: A Love Story. The sequel to Macris’s 1997 novel Capital, Volume One, Part One, Great Western Highway looks at a day in the lives of two people who are curious to understand how, and if, there can be love when the external, market-driven world intrudes on and tangles with the internal world, and the individual is left riven.

The novel opens with Nick, the story’s protagonist, standing in line to get cash out of an ATM on Parramatta Road, one of the busiest and most built-up stretches of the Great Western Highway. Nick – thirty-something, unambitious and uncommitted – is in fact on the way to see Penny, his ex-girlfriend who he can’t get over even though they broke up because he couldn’t get over Christina, his girlfriend before Penny. While he waits, the bank’s ads about homes and loans and images of perfect people with perfect lives beam down on him, forcing him to reflect on the gulf between this life – successful and even, brimming with optimism and hope – and his own.

Though it is only down the road, it’s some time before Nick actually reaches Penny’s house for what is shaping up to be a lugubrious night in front of the television. We follow as he walks along the Great Western Highway, and advertising and the rush of traffic and music and noise washes over him. All of these things, everything from Thai restaurants to squashed Coke cans, hold personal meaning for him: ‘Nick looked up at the giant mobile that leaned over the highway and tried to fight off the sudden memory of the phone call it was determined to trigger off, a Brisbane-based Christina had said “no” to a London-based Nick.’

The setting is not made up of landmarks in the traditional sense but is instead populated with businesses and brand names which create a sense of place in their own way: a landscape of signs, pregnant with memories and meaning. This barrage of messages about what to buy, how to live and how to find happiness creates a feeling of claustrophobia, something that we are more or less superficially desensitised to in reality but which the novel succeeds in evoking.

While Nick is very much the conduit through which we engage with this world, before he reaches his destination the narrative’s point of view switches to shadowing Penny at JobClub, an agency for the unemployed where she works offering employment advice. The themes that rise out of the first chapter are here elaborated on and formalised – happiness versus unhappiness, success versus failure, the tide of employment due to market forces, the structure of power. Penny must navigate her way through these obstacles to the end of the workday and a meeting with Nick, where she must then try to find a way to reconcile her private wants and needs, whatever they are, with those of her former boyfriend’s.

At the novel’s literal and metaphorical core is a Modernist stream-of-consciousness monologue from former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The chapter, titled ‘Lateline’, is an examination of the Thatcherite free market from the point of view of the woman herself, with Thatcher’s thoughts filling the space between her answers to Lateline presenter Kerry O’Brien’s questions. ‘No you may not finish,’ she thinks as O’Brien pleads to be heard. Even if he manages to finish his question, he is drowned out, all but voiceless in the deluge. Maggie Thatcher as free market mouthpiece – it’s an extraordinary piece of literature.

After the Thatcher monologue, the narrative pivots again, going back to Nick’s time in post-Christina London. The narrative style undergoes a further transition, with this part of the story being told in second person, as if from the point of view of a patient old friend. Alone in a city of millions, Nick turns to the television for comfort. His breakup happens to coincide with the Gulf War, and as he wallows, the war plays out in 24 hour-news cycles on the TV screen. Rather than intruding, the televised war distracts, plotting the trajectory of Nick’s feelings for him, acting as a substitute for the lost lover: ‘You lie in bed or sit at the kitchen bench and watch the spectacle… Your whole nervous system is tuned to imminent chemical attack, imminent ground invasion, imminent scorched earth.’ This is the novel’s highest point.

The story concludes at one of the few places it can: outside Rick Damelian’s, the iconic car dealership that once spanned entire blocks of Parramatta Road. But the key word here is once – like many of the real-world businesses and brands that populate the novel, Rick Damelian’s is no more. Today the lots are empty, one day soon they will be ugly, over-priced high rises, the market economy’s cycle of success and failure continuing to spin.

Herein lies the problem that is central to Great Western Highway. While setting this kind of story in a concrete time and place is conceptually sound, it also puts it at risk of becoming anachronistic the moment it’s published. The risk becomes that much larger when the time it interrogates and philosophically engages with has already passed, if only just. Put another way, images of George Bush Sr.’s Gulf War and the Lateline Thatcher interview might be fresh in Nick’s mind, but not as fresh in the reader’s, having been overshadowed by more recent and, arguably, equally relevant events.

There is evidence that a sequel to Capital, Volume One, Part One has existed for over a decade, with extracts of it having appeared in all of Australia’s major literary journals. Macris himself makes this fact clear in the ‘Author’s note’. With its knotted publishing history only having been untangled following the 2011 release of When Horse Became Saw, Macris’s moving story of his family’s struggle with his son’s autism, perhaps it’s grimly fitting that market forces kept Great Western Highway off bookshelves until now. However, the problem of a disconnect created by a delayed publication has a simple solution: respond again. A Volume One surely demands a Volume Two.

Great Western Highway is ambitious, experimental literature. While Macris’s use of the commercial twilight zone that is the highway, carving through the novel in the way that it carves through the lives of so many, is just a little bit brilliant, this occasionally disjointed novel won’t be for everyone. It’s for this reason that UWA Publishing should be commended for taking a chance with this unconventional story of modern love.

Great Western Highway: A Love Story (Capital, Volume One, Part Two)
Anthony Macris
The University of Western Australia Publishing, 2012
368 pages

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Read an extract from Great Western Highway here.

MOUNTING THE FIGHT:
an interview with Anthony Macris

Posted on April 9, 2011 by in Lighthouse Yarns

With the release of his latest book, you could be forgiven for thinking that more than a decade in academia teaching aspiring writers the fundamentals of literary theory, and writing a form-challenging novel or two of his own, might have taken its toll on Anthony Macris. In contrast to his debut novel, Capital, Volume One, a rhizomatic narrative that examines the impact of market forces on everyday life, Tony’s latest book is When Horse Became Saw, a memoir billed as a ‘family’s search for answers’. That his time teaching at the University of Wollongong and at the University of Technology, Sydney, where he is now a senior lecturer, has eroded the interests he’s spent his adult life cultivating could be a logical conclusion. It even justifies his own belief that teaching makes writing a living – and lived – thing.

But between books, something else happened. Tony became a father to a son, a son who at eighteen months regressed into severe autism. It didn’t kill the writing bug or force a severing of his post-structuralist roots. His writing, like his life, simply underwent an unequivocal change. Interviewer: Tristan Foster.

INTERVIEWER

Your first major work, Capital, Volume One, a novel which borders on the experimental, was published internationally in the mid-nineties. Your next major work, When Horse Became Saw, a memoir, was just released. Between books you had a son, Alex, and at the age of two he “descended” into severe autism. What happened to your desire to write fiction during this time?

MACRIS

For about a year after my son’s regression into autism, I found it hard to cope with anything literary at all. I had a real struggle with teaching literature and creative writing. I had to, of course – we needed money more than ever before. You know those religious narratives about saints who are tempted or have great doubts and they have to reaffirm their faith? I went through that for about six months. It all seemed so remote.

It started when I had to research autism, because the state services couldn’t be trusted in any way, shape or form to give my son adequate therapy. So, I literally had to research the condition. I’ve got a PhD, I can research – it’s something I can do. Suddenly, texts no longer had the same character for me. These were texts that had to be truth-yielding. They had to be factual. They had to give me the answer to a very concrete problem that I had, like what would be the most appropriate education for my son who might never have been able to speak again.

I was educated at university in high post-structuralism and, to some degree, postmodernism, which deals with speculations on the nature of meaning, slippages of meaning. But suddenly texts were no longer about speculation and they were no longer about creating and managing a world. I didn’t read anything that did not have a direct bearing on a very, very serious problem that I had before me.

In that context, I can now understand why people in engineering or doctors or people who study other branches of knowledge can go a bit blank on literature and sometimes don’t quite get it. Suddenly I understood them perfectly. I needed things that intervened in the most practical way in the world.

I was two-thirds of the way through Capital, Volume Two: Great Western Highway and I came to a dead halt. I could not really continue on with that book. I hadn’t lost faith in it, but my attention was utterly diverted by this more important problem. When I came to wanting to again write about a year later, there was only one book I wanted to write. I was so horrified by the abandonment of kids like my son that I thought this story had to be told. All that ornate, intellectually baroque machinery that I’d built up and taken to a nearly ridiculous extreme in Volume Two, which has got 900-word sentences – suddenly I didn’t want to write a book like that anymore. I wanted to write a book for a public, that would be read and that could intervene.

INTERVIEWER

Don DeLillo believes that writing is a concentrated form of thinking. Helen Garner has said she writes to understand, to explore. Was the writing ever an act of needing to penetrate what was happening to your son and to your world?

MACRIS

I’m going to give a semi-complicated answer to that question. One of the things that came out of my PhD research was the notion of embodying affect. How do we recreate affect or emotion? Emotion is a central thing to narrative, something other forms of writing don’t usually do as effectively. A philosophical treatise is based on the modality of reason. Even when a psychologist writes about emotion, they’re doing it from a rationalist standpoint.

What literature can do very well is create a field of affect. You enter into an emotionally driven story-world. When I was looking over my old uni texts to prepare for some lectures I read The Poetics again. I came across something I’d never noticed before, it’s so central – the two great machines of Aristotelian tragedy are pity and fear. You don’t have a tragedy unless it’s based around moving the audience to pity and fear. This was at the time when I was starting to write Horse and it was like a revelation to me. These primordial, blood-soaked affects – no polite words like empathy or respecting the other – just this really quite brutal, twin-cam engine of pity and fear. I can’t tell you how that spoke to me.

When I wrote Horse, what I wanted to do was create a field of affect that put a reader through an experience of pity and fear. That’s the frame of the narrative. That’s very particular to that book. It wasn’t the central task of the Capital novels, which were about other things. They’ve still got emotional dimensions to them but never did I so self-consciously say I’m going to create a field of signifiers that evoke pity and fear – in the first third of the book, I’m going to make the reader watch a child disintegrate.

INTERVIEWER

On that point, When Horse Became Saw is a profoundly personal piece of writing. Was it difficult to put yourself and your family out there in this way?

MACRIS

It actually wasn’t. It was an enormous relief. I’ve always been drawn to the confessional mode – I like music that’s in this mode. But I also like this notion of stand and deliver, of the unplugged – I’m going to strip away everything and it’s just going to be me and the audience, communicating what I think is important, that is quite personal and, I hope, affecting.

It didn’t feel like an act of catharsis at the time because I’d set this project for myself, to recreate affects. It was actually really disturbing. I know this sounds melodramatic but I wept and wept as I wrote that book. It was extraordinary because I had to whip myself up to recreate a moving experience for the reader. I was no longer a writer of sentences. It was like restaging things and creating a flow of affect.

INTERVIEWER

I want to return to the word descended. It’s heavy with connotation and meaning – I think of Dante and abandoning all hope. In the book it becomes clear that it’s not just Alex who descends but both you and your wife. But the descent allows for an ascent. How redemptive was the writing of When Horse Became Saw? Did it satisfy the writerly desires of Tony Macris the author or was this the act of Tony Macris the father?

MACRIS

They all come together. I’m a person who has to write. There is a force in me that must be channelled towards that. My whole life I’ve spent trying to find time to write. It just will not go away. It’s like I’d be better off dead.

But it was interesting – you’ve got that precondition, but things in life happen to you and drop into that flow of energy, and in this case it was When Horse Became Saw. Suddenly I’m a father, a father under very weird and trying circumstances. There was no choice but to write from that space – there was no other book in me at the time.

There is a lot of artistry in the book. It’s still written according to first, second and third act. It does very standard things, it sets up a happy family in order for there to be an identification effect. The first sentence is a classic premise, it could be straight out of Kafka: Gregor Samsa woke up and turned into a bug, when my son was eighteen months old he descended into severe autism.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write the fiction of Capital again?

MACRIS

I’m trying to find a way back into it. I’m not quite sure what this experience has done to me yet. I want to write another couple of books. But it changes at every stage and things happen to you.

I was fixated on this notion of how market forces affect our everyday lives. I now see that as somewhat narrow. The Capital novels are an attempt to use a vast repertoire of narrative techniques and even try to find a couple of new ones. They’re ambitious under-40 type novels that young men write in wanting to change the form.

INTERVIEWER

Something I do and something I like other writers to do in their texts is meditate on the meanings of words. Early on when you’re researching autism you come across these terms – incurable, proprioception, intervention – and you’re weighing them and overwhelmed by the connotations attached to them.

MACRIS

Horse is not a standard memoir at all. There are whole chapters about critiques of behaviourism and essays on behaviourist psychology because that was the kind of therapy we ultimately decided on. There’s an intellectual, self-rationalisation of it because it comes from animal training, the denying of the states. In some ways it’s a pretty radical thing to do to a child.

I’ve had journalists say to me, all I wanted to know is if he’s going to be all right. I can see them flicking over to the end, and it kind of isn’t all right. This isn’t a miracle story. Autism wins in the end. It’s about mounting the fight and failing, but succeeding in another way.