Let’s talk, briefly, about fights. Humans love a fight – fighting is among the first things we do: the fight for breath, for attention, the fight to be heard so that we can be fed. And it doesn’t stop in childhood – we continue fighting for things we don’t have or for things we no longer have and want back until we can’t anymore. We fight on public transport and we fight in sporting matches, sometimes in our offices, in our homes. We fight disease; those suffering from cancer speak about the sickness as if it’s a contest. We fight to live and we fight not to die.
Despite this, we are supposed to think of fighting as barbaric, an act that epitomises the absence of civilisation; surely, we mutter to ourselves, there are other ways to work this out. Fighting is seen as primitive because it is. What happens, then, when civilisation and everything that comes with it – development, progress – is itself the problem?
The Coral Battleground by Australian poet Judith Wright is about a fight for preservation. It tells the story of the campaign by small but determined conservation groups to save the Great Barrier Reef in the 1960s and ’70s. That you know what the Great Barrier Reef is and have a fixed picture of it in your mind when you see its name, that you have maybe visited it or have vague plans to visit it or have received a postcard with a picture of its sapphire waters on the front is evidence that they won this particular fight. Wright famously said of the Reef that it is ‘the closest most people will come to Eden’. Her paean to it is an insightful, sometimes compelling, at other times tedious discussion of bureaucracy which ranges from the Queensland Government’s refusal to act on the outbreak of a then-small plague of Crown of Thorns starfish, to oil-drilling and limestone mining, to the fight to have the Reef – as a whole – protected. Because of the efforts of the conservationists, the entirety of the Reef, stretching from Cape York to Fraser Island, became a marine park where oil exploration continues to be illegal.
That the small conservation groups faced considerable challenges is an understatement; at the time, the Reef was not even considered a single entity, nor was it clear under whose authority the Reef was. The campaigning of the conservation groups helped to solve these problems, which in-turn helped to clarify the issues that they were facing, but there was also a continuing, and shocking, lack of biological knowledge about the Reef, not to mention a pathetic tug of war between the Queensland and Federal Governments over it. The cause of the conservationists is helped along at various points by sympathetic Prime Ministers, benevolent legal firms, and the fortune of the misfortune of damaging natural disasters and oil rigs and tankers blooming around the world like springtime cherry blossoms to catastrophic effect. Also helpful in putting the issue at the front of the public’s minds was an attentive media, especially The Australian which was pro-conversation during the period. Funny, hey?
There can be poetry in the idea of time taking things for itself, leaving us to wonder what could have been – in literature, the permanent loss of Homer’s Margites, for example. Too, there is something poetic about things being saved from the proverbial, and literal, fire – think of Max Brod’s refusal to put a lighter to Kafka’s work. Wright, one of Australia’s pre-eminent poets, sees no poetry here. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t something that time can swallow, it’s something that, save for apocalyptic calamity, humans can choose to either preserve or to kill. The style Wright employs is reportorial – very little of her own insights or experiences beyond the Reef are part of the story, and much of the time she is speaking in the first person plural – this is the conservationists’ story: ‘Rather than dramatising our encounters, I have chosen to give the facts and little more.’ Aiding in its readability is the fact that the founding members of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland were not trained biologists or lawyers and so they were all forced to break complex legal and biological information down into terms they could understand themselves.
Wright’s story of the Reef doesn’t so much as end as it does simply stop. There was no clear victory, and Wright and the other conservationists were under no illusions that the Reef would be safe forever after. ‘To me,’ Wright wrote in her Foreword to the 1996 edition, ‘it’s a kind of miracle that things have gone so well for the Great Barrier Reef.’
Let’s talk about fights again. Fights are at their dumbest when it’s a repeat of a previous fight, something that’s already been had out. The only party that likes the idea of a rematch is the loser. The Coral Battleground was first published in 1977; that it has been reissued this year by Spinifex Press is not a coincidence – things have stopped going well for the Great Barrier Reef. With plans to dump millions of tons of dredged sand inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Federal and Queensland Governments don’t see a 2000km-long reef anymore, they see something resembling a rubbish tip. Wright was writing at a time when there was little knowledge of reefs not only locally but also globally. It could be argued that it doesn’t take reams of ecological studies to know that the Great Barrier Reef is special, but it shows a particular kind of foresight on the part of the various conservation committees to believe that it was indeed worth protecting. Now, we know so much more – and, yet, in an astounding and special display of fuckwittery, the ecological knowledge we do have doesn’t seem to matter. In a recent article on the Reef for New Scientist, chief research scientist at the Centre for Tropical Water & Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University Jon Brodie wrote: ‘Of the three big threats to the Great Barrier Reef – climate change, coastal development and agricultural pollution – only the latter is being managed on the basis of good science, and then only to some extent.’
‘Australia has something that exists nowhere else on the face of the earth,’ wrote Wright. ‘The idea that anyone would take the remotest chance of damaging the Reef is beyond belief.’ The Coral Battleground is a statement of property, a loving statement, but with the clear message that the Reef belongs to the people. People working together saved it, and people working together can save it again. But – and you know what’s coming next – in the same way that we have the power to save it, we have the power to both kill it or idly allow it to be killed. Wright, in closing, points out that the fate of the Reef is symbolic of the fate of the planet – when it’s doing okay, the rest of the place is doing okay. The Reef is about to be tested again.
The Coral Battleground
Spinifex Press, 2014
The story opens with a river in flood. The rain has kept Juno and Hannah inside, and at the first opportunity they hurry out, down to the river. Their simple lives are disrupted when they spot the body of a man in the water. Juno goes to find help while Hannah pulls the man out, strips him of his clothes and brings him back to life. Rather than rewarding the girl, the head of the Christian community they are a part of puts Hannah on trial, as well as Mr Cattermole, the man she has saved. While she is in isolation, rumours of plans to send Juno to an orphanage find their way to her and she decides they must leave.
Juno & Hannah, by New Zealand writer Beryl Fletcher, is the story of two young women as they flee through the New Zealand bush in an attempt to escape the community. Complicating this is the fact they are alone, having lived most of their brief lives in servitude and are unskilled beyond the house – in plainer words, they are female: ‘I am useless,’ Hannah thinks, ‘I am a blank slate that has yet to be exposed to the world.’ To further compound the issue, Juno has a mental disorder. She requires near-constant attention, and after their escape it becomes clear she is pregnant.
The mysteries are layered on from the outset. Why is Hannah put on trial for saving a life? Mr Cattermole leaves the courtroom with a wink and a smile – why does he act with such familiarity? What was he doing here? Why does Abraham, the leader of the community, keep the girls at arm’s length? Why are they in an obscure cult at all? The resolutions to these are not immediately forthcoming; indeed, many of them only get partly resolved – and the introduction of Hannah and Juno’s estranged father, and then their mother, ensure that the mysteries only multiply.
As well as opening the story, a river appears again at a later point in the narrative. The girls, using the river as a guide, walk to near exhaustion. Mr Cattermole finds them and is amused that the girls chose to follow the river – it loops in on itself. They were walking in circles. He returns the favour to Hannah by leading the girls to shelter.
The river is a handy motif. The story too flows and meanders like a running river, snaking in on itself before straightening, only to begin to curl again. The pace has the effect of smoothing the narrative out, keeping it consistent as mysteries rise or as they are resolved. It works to ensure that what is a complex story never loses focus.
But it also has the effect of sweeping key events along with it. The steady tone and progression makes it hard to find a part of the story that differentiates itself from another part. Hannah saving the life of Mr Cattermole or an attempt to abort Juno’s pregnancy is therefore given the same weight – in tone, in importance – as Hannah’s explanation to Juno about how to bake the perfect loaf of soda bread or horse rides through the bush. The result is a curious absence of gravitas, which is made even more obvious by the fact that, having grown up in the Christian community, the girls have lived otherwise mundane lives.
Juno & Hannah is maybe more correctly described as the story of two girls who try to reclaim their fates from men. The leader of the Christian community, the man who impregnated Juno, the group of eugenicists – all men – who want to forcefully abort Juno’s baby, as well as other men they meet along the way all attempt to exert control over Juno and Hannah. The girls are passed around like a problem.
The only man in the story that is of high moral standing is Mr Cattermole. It is him who teaches Hannah skills she had not previously been allowed to learn in the community – ‘This was man’s work.’ He does it unthinkingly and with respect, empowering Hannah, allowing her to prove herself capable.
Bravery in writing is coming to an unpopular conclusion, or offering up a conclusion that may not be a conclusion at all; both acknowledge that solutions to the problems of the world don’t always come easy. By no means must a novel neatly agree with wider society’s stances and opinions. Indeed, it is what literature does best. It is why novels are burned or banned, why, at some points in history (the present moment not excluded), writers are imprisoned. Fletcher is a brave writer. On the subject of Juno’s pregnancy, the eugenicists who intend to force an abortion prove themselves to be as bad as the Christians, if not worse. But then the only answer for Juno, who is incapable of fully grasping the fact and consequences of her pregnancy, seems to be that she must have the baby despite the terms of its conception and despite her physical shortcomings. Fletcher posits that neither science nor religion have the answer, that it is for nature to decide. Their relationship with men is another subject of complexity. The men in Juno & Hannah are almost universally bad and almost universally view women as objectives to be ordered and shuffled about. Here, as mentioned, Mr Cattermole is the exception. But while he saves their lives, they also spend a large portion of the story being chauffeured through the bush and out of trouble by him. They are dependent on his knowledge of the bush, his courage and his morality. They depend, in other words, on his masculinity. Without it, they would have died along the river.
But maybe, less than his manliness, it is Mr Cattermole’s goodness that compels him to help. The men in the story are bad, and while the women aren’t good, they are kept from goodness or, as in the case of Juno and Hannah’s mother, turned mad and into outcasts by the oppression of men. The goodness in Mr Cattermole is the reciprocation of the goodness of Hannah.
So, which wins in the end, goodness or nature? Juno and Hannah must find their way out of an insular community, through the bush and into lives of their own making. They seek their freedom. But, from Fletcher’s point of view, when it has been kept from someone so absolutely, freedom can be dangerous. If it is either goodness or nature that wins, it is not any sort of neat victory.
Juno & Hannah
Spinifex Press, 2013
173 pages, $24.95
First time I left her home, it was an autumn afternoon or looked like autumn or is autumn in my memory. The next time, it was morning and bright or maybe I thought it was bright because I’d barely slept and so the light seemed sharp, polished, like after rain.
We got talking over drinks at a series of gatherings organised by mutual friends which I only kept going to, really, in the hope of seeing her. First time we met was at a bar on the 36th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel, overlooking the lights of the city and a dark harbour. It was quiet and, at first, we spoke in whispers, leaning in close; I smelt her perfume, tried to place its sweetness. She told me she didn’t come to places like this, that she seemed to be going to parties she didn’t usually go to, that the night before she’d been at one where people were having carefree sex out in front of everyone. ‘Who are these people that can just fuck in the open like that? Do they go home afterwards and brush their teeth and hop into bed? Do they have regular jobs? I’m disgusted, but I’m envious.’ I smiled at this and she liked that I smiled, I could tell. I don’t think we touched on this first occasion, beyond, maybe, a quick handshake, and, anyway, someone else came and joined us and conversations meander and criss-cross and soon we were no longer talking. But I found myself thinking of her later, when I was in the passenger side of a taxi going home, and the way her eyes moved from my eyes to my mouth and back. Before the end of one of these get-togethers, she asked if I wanted to leave with her.
There was a room in her home that could be called a study. It had bookcases filled with books, and on one wall was a framed photograph of a building reflecting the clouds in a distorted sky and on the adjacent wall was a print of dancers by Degas that I remember thinking looked faded, maybe from being in the sun. While she was in the bathroom I took my glass of wine into this room to see what the book spines read as I held the glass by the stem; on one of the shelves was a small ship in a small bottle. She found me in here and I was about to ask about ships in bottles and where the building in the photograph was, but she pulled me into the hallway by the wrist. Next time I was in her home, she said, one of the few things she actually said to me then, that the room and the things in it did not belong to her.
The first time I was at her home, I saw her nude. She undressed in front of me as if I wasn’t there, fixing her glasses after she’d bumped them with her forearm as she let her hair out and leaving them on till the last moment. The second time, she was careful to hide her body.
From the first time we met, he spoke in a kind of harsh whisper.
She said things to me I didn’t quite understand. That was the next time I went to her home; the first few times I spoke to her I understood well, as well as I thought I’d ever understood anybody. That’s what I remember thinking, anyway. It was during the next time that she spoke of things I didn’t quite understand. She spoke about a boy-man, asked, I thought rhetorically, ‘How sure of himself can a boy-man be?’ The boy-man, she said. The boy-man, the boy-man.
She asked me to leave and I would have. Of course, I would have. She didn’t ask me outright, didn’t say those exact words, but that was what was implied, and I would have. But there was what we’d had before. Had we not have had that, I would have left immediately.
So I didn’t leave, I hid. I sat in a leather couch worn soft, I think, through age and use, let myself sink into it, trying to stay out of the way. She began to play music, CDs, none of which I knew or even thought I knew, guitar and drum-heavy music, ambient and nearly voiceless, the rhythmical sound of industry. She spent most of the time going through the albums, turning to me only occasionally, maybe to see if I was still there, seeming to, at one stage, put the CDs in some sort of order.
It grew late and her housemates came home, a couple I thankfully didn’t know. She turned down the music when the front door closed. The guy wore a cap and I barely saw him but the woman was blonde and round-faced, beautiful. She stopped in the doorway and said hi to the both of us and I knew immediately that, yes, the Degas print was hers and the photograph of the building was his. Or they were both hers, or both his.
The next time I saw her room, two or maybe three weeks after the first time, was when she stopped playing music and gestured to me to follow her. She put away the CDs and we moved out of the living room to her bedroom, where I pushed some clothes off the chair in the corner and sat again. The moon was in the part of the sky framed by her window.
This next time I, in her room, asked her, ‘Should I go?’ She came over to me so I stood, but she hit me, slapped me on the arms as I covered myself. I reached out to her, touching her on the shoulder, but she pushed my arm away, thumped a fist on my chest, pushed into me, then turned for her bed.
At one point, briefly, deep in the night and after a long while of sitting in the room together as if the other wasn’t there, I fell asleep. When I woke to shift my weight in the hard seat, I saw her on the bed, still awake. She glanced at me, saw me see her.
The first time I went to her house, I stayed until mid-afternoon. We woke late and she made me a breakfast of olives and tomatoes and cucumber which I watched her carefully slice over the kitchen sink, and bread that she pulled apart with her hands. She made me black tea and we spoke as if we might be friends.
Next time I woke from another short sleep, the bed was empty. I sat up and listened for movement in the house’s halls, listened for the creak of a floorboard or the sound of running water. I stood and peered out the window, into the dawn, as if she would be there.
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)
The University of Western Australia Publishing, 2012
Read an extract from Great Western Highway here.
LinkLock, a technology company based in Canberra, has developed a method of encrypting and securing data feeds in a way that makes them theoretically impossible to hack. This piece of tech is attractive to the United States Department of Defense, as the data sent to and from their drones operating in the Middle East is being intercepted by the groups they’re targeting. LinkLock engineer Daniel Carter is sent to oversee a test of the software, and must take part in drone flights over Yemen, Oman and Afghanistan, ostensibly joining the US’s remote war.
This is the premise of award-winning, Canberra-based author Andrew Croome’s second novel, Midnight Empire, an espionage thriller exploring the intricacies of twenty-first century warfare.
Running parallel to the story of Daniel’s role in a faraway war is a sub-story about poker, the rules, its players and the tactics of the game. It’s here, with poker, that Midnight Empire begins. Dmitri plays the game on his PC in a grey and distant Russia. At first, he uses the winnings to feed his family, but he quickly becomes a professional player, developing mathematical theories as he travels the world, winning huge pots of money and meeting our protagonist, Daniel, along the way.
The prologue’s solid colours and texturelessness is something of a bluff. That it’s misleading only becomes clear when the narrative proper begins and there’s a surprising and pleasant shift in story style and protagonist and place and subject. Detail, absent in Dmitri’s story, now rises – ‘The fridge was barren. A unit on the wall displayed both the indoor and outdoor temperatures, 59 and 98°F. There were six pillows on the bed.’ – bringing the story into sharper focus, exposing the reader to the bright daylight of Las Vegas.
Drawing the two narratives together is the simple fact that the drone operations are being controlled from the desert outside Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world. Despite the long hours at the air-force base, the game is inescapable. By placing them side by side, the two are inevitably compared; Midnight Empire makes the point that they’re both games that aren’t in fact games.
Croome’s idea of remote warfare as a game akin to poker – making moves based on behaviour and ‘intelligence’ and speculation – could quickly have gone awry. But he makes it work, partly because he doesn’t reduce either one, instead bringing poker up to the level of the life and death nature of remote warfare.
Crucial to the story is the concept that no war is remote, that there’s no such thing. It’s a point that Ania, a poker player and one of the story’s few female characters, makes to Daniel. ‘If what you are fighting is a war, then you must surely be in danger of dying,’ she says. ‘Otherwise what you are fighting is not a war. It is something else.’
It’s also through his treatment of remote warfare, channelled through the character of Daniel, that Croome has success. Daniel is uncomfortable with what he’s participating in, for reasons even he is unclear about. This is a world of unflinching men who have simple answers to hard questions, but it’s one which Daniel has willingly inserted himself into, his feelings of displacement inevitably bringing the situation to crisis.
Daniel’s confusion about his role is a nice, humanising touch. However, it is the only way the reader really has an opportunity to connect with him. Midnight Empire takes the idea of the detached, all-knowing writer and the hovering, all-seeing drone and combines them. Daniel is viewed from above, sometimes from near and sometimes from far, as if from the impartial eye of a drone, while he too views from above. From this height, connections on the human level cannot be made.
Of course, this could be incidental. But one of the points that Croome makes with Midnight Empire is that drone warfare, whether immediate or remote, is indiscriminate. At times, Daniel becomes smaller in the narrative, shrunk by the enormity of what he has become enveloped in. There are ‘hours in which Daniel became pretty much invisible, just the encryption operator, a benign presence, a regular face.’ This shrinking, or zooming out, is compounded by the effects of his displacement, of being from somewhere that isn’t here, and while here, experiencing somewhere else. This skilful erasure of Daniel reinforces the idea that you do not escape this, that after entering the war machine, you do not leave it.
The story is told, fittingly, with a straight face and a cold stare. But Croome’s cold stare is interrupted by the occasional glance away, an unevenness created by juxtaposing a speedy narrative with stony, near-DeLilloan descriptions of the Las Vegas light and desert landscapes. These patches are reminders that Document Z, Croome’s 2008 Vogel Award-winning debut novel, a fictional account of the Petrov Affair with a stronger literary bent, was no accident and Croome’s writing can be of the literary kind, even the focus, if he wants it to be. But does he want it to be? They recur inconsistently, all but petering out by the story’s conclusion.
Much of Midnight Empire’s action takes place on PC monitors. When Croome writes, ‘They came down out of the mountains, flew above the flat green lands that approached the city, came out of the bearing of the sun,’ what he means is Daniel, the drone pilots and other officers watch computer screens in a hut in the desert. That Midnight Empire is compelling and tense despite this is testament to Croome’s skill as a teller of stories. Any stylistic sideways looks, then, are those of the new practitioner; Andrew Croome knows what he’s doing, and confidence and evenness will come.
On the cover of Midnight Empire are the words ‘fiction’, ‘crime’, and ‘spy thriller’. This is where we are now, where publishing is. And it’s a bit of a shame, because Croome’s novel is all of these things and none of them. Midnight Empire is a smart, taut exploration of the methods of a particular, uncompromisingly modern kind of warfare. It’s addictive and suspenseful and manages to be both these things while being set in a time where remote warfare still seems so distant, happening somewhere over there and not to us, out of the now, overseen by men who call other men ‘sir’. But, of course, this is happening. It has been happening and will continue to happen, and it will reach a stage where we won’t have to go to it, it will come to us.
Allen & Unwin, 2012
Review by Tristan Foster
It’s summertime in an Australian east-coast country town, school is done for the year and, to three bored friends, a night of riverside drinking sounds like a good idea. The unfortunate trio are Jenny, Tom and Danny, country teens who seem to have the feeling that fortune doesn’t have much planned for them anyway. Soon, they’re making bad decisions faster than they can finish their stubbies, the outcomes of which will resonate for entire lifetimes.
This is the premise of Anthony J. Langford’s debut, Bottomless River, a novella that attempts a study of how quickly ego and teenage lust can change – or set – the course of young lives.
There is, at its base, a good story here. Something in the hearts of these kids, the boys in particular, was broken a long time before a single night on the grog. But the essence of why they act the way they do – country living, abusive parents, general disaffectedness – the reader never gets a hint of. Of course, reasons do not by necessity have to be forthcoming; how often in life are we left searching for reasons to justify our actions? Nor is a Miltonesque epic needed. But if the fall of man is inevitable and paradise is always going to be lost, a reader needs something more substantial from a narrative than a string of simple, ill-conceived actions.
This is one of the key problems with Bottomless River: the potential – and there is plenty here, the opening line holds such promise – for dramatic tension and, by extension, narrative richness, remains largely unharvested. Sadly, in its place is an expository account of the next couple of decades of Danny’s life and his attempts to come to terms with his actions on that night. In a story of only 59 pages, it’s a lot to cover – too much, in fact.
The story’s evocations of summer for some directionless, country teens was something that returned to me later, when I’d put the book away and should have been thinking of other things. It’s probably no coincidence that it is this section that’s written with the most clarity, the most feeling. When this clarity ebbs away, scenes can verge on the surreal, even the comical. For instance, a drinker at the local pub is described as ‘a big Italian guy’ who is ‘dirty and jagged’, in sum, ‘a filthy dirt bag’, the narrator giving the man the nickname of Gepetto.
These are things that could be assumed to be part of the Danny’s personality; being the main character and narrator, it is of course his views and biases that inflect this sort of narrative. It’s an interesting and challenging stylistic decision to make, have a narrator who isn’t particularly intelligent or robust tell the story of how his life and the lives of his friends got ruined. And there is realism lurking behind the voice – Danny’s life choices, crucial to his character, have also reduced the possibilities of the tale.
It’s a lack of sensitivity to the narrative world around him that makes this voice seem slightly askew. When the characters are young, the voice is a closer fit, as if the narrator is re-entering the immature mind of his teens. But as the narrative races to the present, there is little progression. While it is consistent, I wonder if this understatedness is an aspect of the narrator’s character, or a flaw in the author.
The real problem, however, is our narrator tells the story. He tells it without showing any real desire to set a scene or stopping to step outside himself, and suddenly he’s doubled in age, unhappily married and being accused of slipping a hand down his sister-in-law’s pants. Rather than actually giving us a story, these passages of expository, breakneck prose occasionally read as commentary on a story happening somewhere in the distance. This has an effect not dissimilar to speeding through a city with your eyes closed while somebody lists off what’s passing outside your window; it forces an expanse between reader and text, creating a reading experience that’s pleasureless and impersonal.
Maybe as a result of this narrative style, turns of phrase don’t come easily yet clichés will occasionally pockmark a page. And maybe not; the lack of even simple editorial guidance can be exasperating. There are also several crucial typos and incorrect uses of words, which makes me wonder if a professional editor has indeed read the manuscript.
The cover design of Bottomless River suffers from a similar failing. Front and back, it consists of a dark blue oval on a light blue background with a photograph superimposed over the top and Papyrus font for the copy. This is not the work of a professional graphic designer. But it’s a crucial element in attracting curious bookshop patrons, online and off, and it needs to be addressed if it’s to do this.
In the final chapter, the narrative gets some much needed verve. The story has come to the present, from where ‘this memoir or confession or whatever it is’ is written. Given the relative liveliness of the present tense and the change it brings to the dynamic of the story, it’s a shame the reader doesn’t get more time here.
It’s hard not to feel that the above criticisms are simply a long and slippery way of saying that Ginninderra Press have not done what they’re obliged to do as publishers of Bottomless River. At the very least, a publisher must provide its writers with a basic service. By agreeing to put this book out into the world while not putting their resources into it, Ginninderra Press have failed this new author – and treated his readers with something that bears a scary resemblance to indifference. They will need to invest more in their future publications if they’re to be perceived as a professional alternative publishing house by the book-buying public.
Anthony J. Langford
Ginninderra Press, 2012
In a recent interview with Amitava Kumar, Michael Ondaatje spoke about the need for multiple voices and various narratives in stories of political or social consequence. ‘You want the politics of any complicated situation to be complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction,’ Ondaatje said. In an oeuvre that has become increasingly complex, it is a belief that Merlinda Bobis has come to share; her latest novel Fish-Hair Woman is a narrative of knots. Set in Manilla and the village of Iraya, on the surface it is a fictionalised account of events during the civil uprisings of the seventies and eighties that led to dozens of Filipinos who opposed the ruling regime ending up at the bottom of the river. And it is this, but Fish-Hair Woman is many things.
Attracted by revolution, Australian journalist Tony McIntyre visited the Philippines in the 1980s. He fell in love with the country and its people, but, like so many others, disappeared. Now, over a decade later, he makes contact with Luke McIntyre, the son he abandoned. Luke reluctantly flies to Manilla where he is whisked away by his father’s wealthy patron, the missing man himself nowhere to be seen.
It’s this narrative that serves as Fish-Hair Woman’s spine. But at its heart – and in this novel as in all of Bobis’s work, it’s the heart that matters – it is a story about story: the untruths that are sculpted into truths, the myths that lives are built upon and the truths that corrode into myth. Myth and superstition run through the story like rust. But the meta-lesson of omens and old wives tales is that the world is a complex place; mythologising is an attempt at ordering a universe that stubbornly refuses to offer up a reason.
It is out of this same tradition that the novel, the grandmother of storytelling, rises. A novel is an attempt to order and explore, its existence relying on the fact that there is no single, straightforward story. The world is still a complex place. It’s why we need the novel – to remind us that nothing is simple, and to help us find comfort in this notion.
As if to underscore this idea, punctuating Bobis’s novel are clippings about the Iraya case from the Philippine Daily News. They offer some clarity, and give the story some real-world context. But the clippings are small, some cut from the margins, the kind of news-in-brief article that can be scanned in the short moments between bites of toast or jolts of the bus on the morning commute.
Presenting these concise paragraphs alongside Fish-Hair Woman’s elaborate narrative has the effect of making mainstream media’s attempts to grapple with any complex story appear futile. Perhaps pushing the case of multiple murders and government corruption to a page’s edge is an admission of this: a newspaper’s obligation is to skim a story’s top, as it only can. ‘Our sadness very big,’ Pay Inyo, Iraya’s medicine man, says to Luke. Leave it to the novel, a form without pretensions of truth, to attempt to unravel ‘big sadness’, to reach to a story’s heart, because, of all the storytelling mediums, the novel does it best.
‘Why is the past more present than the present, the old stories more acute, more in the flesh?’ Throughout the novel, the past persistently nudges through. “This is the hum of memory,” writes Estrella, the “fish-hair woman”, to the missing Tony. The merging of memory with the present gives the prose the quality of a dream that’s risen in the blue hours of dawn. The reader is asked to hop from the lyrical, Tagalog-peppered storytelling of Estrella to the stiffer prose tracing the stories of the Australians; occasionally the shift is in the space of a few short chapters. The styles are not so disparate from section to section as to appear written by different authors but this tangle of past, present, voice and place makes for challenging literature.
A text of this nature is going to pose challenges for the author, too, and Fish-Hair Woman is not a novel without flaw. At times, sub-stories are dropped and picked up and eventually concluded with little consequence. There are also occasions that the novel trades being poetic for being nebulous, thus losing the momentum it works hard to sustain. It’s at these times that the meandering narrative could have used some knocking into line.
But then there are tales like that of how Bolody, Estrella’s brother, became Belody da Teribol that Bobis gets it just right. Semi-present for most of the story, Bolody appears in full to have his heartbreaking story told. It is in these examinations of life in tiny Iraya that Bobis is at her best, the glow of fireflies all but visible just off the page.
As I was reading my thoughts kept turning to Wide Sargasso Sea. It shares with Jean Rhys’s masterpiece more than just a threat to topple into tragedy, but Fish-Hair Woman takes a wider view. It is a love story, a murder mystery, a story about family and a story about the impact of the kind of self-perpetuating government corruption that so often befalls a country in political turmoil. It’s ambitious and sprawling, and things could quickly go wrong. Fortunately, they don’t. Bobis is a talented, passionate writer who is unafraid of exploring the storytelling potential of the novel.
Spinifex Press, 2012
306 pages, $29.95
Review by Tristan Foster
Australia is a big country but a small place, so when Nam Le’s 2008 short story collection The Boat won nearly every major literary prize in the land people were going to notice.
While prize-winning is taken seriously enough, it could have been a one-off – the short story isn’t new, neither is binding a bunch of them together. Different this time is that the success of Le’s collection has come in the middle of a digital revolution, where information is sprayed at us as if from a fire hose. It’s an age in which the rules have changed, and so story and the ways of storytelling are again up for discussion. Whether it’s because of local or global trends, a symptom of the modern times or a combination of both, the short story again has the attention of publishers, and the Australian reading public.
One of the proponents of short fiction in Australia is Affirm Press, who has made a commitment to publishing small, stylish books of short fiction. The seventh book in their successful Long Story Shorts series is Irma Gold’s debut collection Two Steps Forward.
Gold’s collection opens with the ironically titled ‘The Art of Courting’, a story about new love in middle age. The main character’s clumsy but charming wooing of a neighbour is juxtaposed with her teenage son’s blossoming relationship. As his relationship ends, she “can’t help wishing that love could be easier.”
The story is striking for several reasons. Firstly, it aspires to Realist heights the rest of the collection doesn’t always reach:
You notice how thin your lips have become, how the flash of greasy fuchsia looks almost crude. You pull at the loose skin on your neck, and the spongy puffs around your eyes filled with lines, the skeleton veins of a dead leaf.
Maybe Gold simply felt a ‘warts and all’ approach was more appropriate for a story that is essentially about aging, but it gives the story authenticity and succeeds as a result of it.
The story also stands out because, as you’ll have noticed in the quote above, it’s written entirely in the second person. It’s an ambitious way to begin any collection, let alone a debut, but it quickly becomes clear that Gold is at ease writing in this point of view.
The second person is used again in ‘Your Project’. If there was any doubt the first time, Gold again proves to be adept in this mode. This time, however, I would suggest the choice of point of view is much more strategic. ‘Your Project’ tells the story of a pregnancy. The main character is at odds with her husband Nate over the issue, until she falls pregnant and he is forced to accept it. The use of second person gives the story pace and forces the action on the reader; we experience the main character’s experiences of going through pregnancy as Nate’s interest – and, as a result, her isolation – waxes and wanes. Finally, in this state, they must deal with tragedy. The story is both sensitive and unsettling; ‘Your Project’ and ‘The Art of Courting’ are Gold at her best.
Dualities are common in Two Steps Forward. Many of the themes are treated twice – something which isn’t always necessary. Not even ‘Refuge’, a discerning and compassionate story about a social worker struggling to deal with what she is confronted with in a refugee processing centre, is thematically unique.
Arrivals and departures – literal and metaphorical – are also a regular occurrence, either opening or closing a narrative, or fuelling a narrative’s life force. In the final story, ‘The Anatomy of Happiness’, the main character Julia and her daughters arrive in Australia to live with Julia’s sister. After a difficult start, Julia’s life in the new country simply begins to work – finally, a character can take a redemptive two steps forward.
In ‘Sounds of Friendship’, the collection’s longest piece, Gold examines love and youth in a caravan park. She tells the story of a summer shared by Abby, one of the park’s residents, and Sid, a local boy who is made to clean at the park for his misbehaviour.
In the collection, Gold takes the line that new relationships are bliss and old ones can barely be escaped. Running parallel to Abby and Sid’s relationship is that of Abby’s mother, Fran and her boyfriend Mick. She takes the kids to live with Mick in his caravan – that sleeping arrangements haven’t even been thought of is telling. Perhaps this could be the typical focal point of a story such as this. Instead, the narrative is given depth by following Abby and Sid as they grow closer and Fran’s abusive relationship unfurls in the background:
They are oblivious to her, caught up as they are in each other, and Abby catches the cold-barrelled words Mick fires at her mother.
‘You’re under my roof, slut. Remember that.’
Abby tries to loop her way around to the toilet block in a wide arc, but Fran catches the slink of her.
‘Hi love,’ she calls out, pasting on a mask.
‘Hi,’ Abby mumbles, and keeps walking.
Gold’s narratives are the kind that usually take place somewhere offstage, arcing around the grander ones being played out in the foreground. She examines moments in the life of a single parent trying to reconnect with a daughter, an elderly woman in a nursing home and a drug addict who is confronted with his adult son. Her stories shirk the complexities of a digital era, instead giving the simpler things a leading role. Gold seems to be saying that it is these things – the connections we forge, starting anew, simple freedom – that are of real and lasting importance.
Back to Australia being a big country but a small place. The stories in Two Steps Forward seem to prove this, as they tell tales of familiar characters grappling with familiar situations. These stories could have all taken place down the road from you; they’re a peak into a neighbour’s living room (or into yours). And that’s fine – it’s what binds the stories together, and makes for an even collection. But Gold’s precise prose, assured use of voice and deft treatment of private tragedy left me wanting to see her explore not only the familiar but more of the unfamiliar within the familiar, to take the reader somewhere new.
Two Steps Forward
Affirm Press, 2011
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Could you write the fiction of Capital again?
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.
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.
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.