The most striking feature of contemporary Australian writing – or so it is now claimed – is the robust health of its fiction, notably of two contrasting fictional modes: the short story and the massive novel of national identity. Poetry, the dominant genre of the late Sixties and early Seventies, no longer holds undisputed pride of place, a development attributed in part to the proliferation of state and academic subsidy, in particular the creation in 1973, by the Whitlam Labour Government, of the Literature Board of the newly-formed Australia Council. Behind established international figures such as Patrick White, Thomas Keneally and now Peter Carey crowds a small army – a second wave, as it were – of grant-garlanded and prize-bedecked novelists and storytellers, many of whom, especially those whose reputations derive initially from short fiction, have benefited from the Board’s largesse. The recent publication in Britain of works by three such figures – Rodney Hall, Helen Garner and Frank Moorhouse – provides a convenient occasion for assessment.
Rodney Hall’s career neatly exemplifies current trends. Hall began his literary life as a poet. Since 1962, the year in which he was awarded the first Creative Arts Fellowship at the Australian National University, over five hundred of his poems have appeared in print, in 11 collections. He is the editor of the Collins Book of Australian Poetry (1983), and from 1967 to 1978 was poetry editor of the Australian. Recently, though, thanks in part to a series of fellowships from the Literature Board, Hall seems to have concentrated on fiction, and Kisses of the Enemy, appearing in Britain a year after its bicentennial publication in Australia, is his fifth novel. Its immediate predecessors, Just Relations (1983), winner of the 1982 Miles Franklin Award, and Captivity Captive (1987), have been almost as respectfully reviewed in Britain and America as they were in Australia. Their qualities are those of Hall’s later poetry: a highly-charged rhetorical style, full of prophetic urgency; sudden, sometimes jarring shifts in voice and register; surreal effects; a fragmented narrative; and elaborately patterned mythical or archetypal correspondences.
Kisses of the Enemy has been compared in scope and thematic ambition to Carey’s Illywhacker, Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country, and Patrick White’s Voss – all, in their different ways, full-blown attempts at the Great Australian Novel. Though set in the near-future (2022), the novel ranges back, in italicised dream or fantasy sequences, to the early 19th century, and its cast of fictional and historical characters is appropriately teeming. At the centre of the novel is Bernard Buchanan, first president of the newly declared independent republic of Australia, a republic ‘based on the American model’. Buchanan is the victim-beneficiary of shadowy foreign manipulators, a familiarly sinister amalgam of American military and corporate interests, and the novel traces his disastrous eight-year rule. Buchanan’s greed and guilt, his bloated and babyish egotism and self-pity, are surreally rendered: ill-at-ease in the land, insomniac, delusional, haunted by figures from history, by doubts which gnaw at him like mice (a nest of mice eventually colonise his intestines), he embodies the worst aspects of the national soul, the still-living spirit of violence, hypocrisy and will by which slave-driving settlers such as W.C. Wentworth, ‘the lord of the lash and triangle’, Benjamin ‘Flogger’ Boyd and John MacArthur – all of whom we meet with in the narrative – came to control the land, ‘filling it with blood and the suppuration of needless misery’. What keeps this spirit alive, according to Hall, is the complicity of the people, a people who ‘are lost’, whose narcissism and ‘lazy reluctance to think’ have prevented them from taking responsibility ‘not just for the future but for what has already been done in Australia’. Hence the appeal of Buchanan’s public persona, with its broad, coarse streak of ocker humour and cunning, and of the flattering xenophobic vacuities of ‘National Pragmatism’, the ‘independent’ platform on which he runs. The people want ‘fairy tales’ not truth, and this is precisely what Buchanan offers: ‘an age of great spirits, brave initiatives, independent thinking. The age of bigness’. In the absence of genuine vision, though, ‘bigness’ means a president beached in blubber, so fat he can neither walk nor stand, and a republic independent in name only. As Buchanan and his puppet-masters burgeon grotesquely, the economy collapses; bribery, corruption and paranoia spread through the land; foreign labourers (mockingly titled ‘Friends of Privilege’) and dissidents are interned in ‘assimilation’ camps (built on the very site of 19th-century convict camps); in ‘the most perfect climate’, crops rot and ‘lips crack with secrecy’ (a typically ‘prophetic’ locution). The novel begins to read like Brave New World or 1984.
Or would do, if it were better or more economically written. This is a novel in which everything – every journey, gesture, look or landscape – provides an occasion for high rhetoric. Nothing can simply happen or be, it all has to be tricked out with surreal poeticisms, too many of which are awkward or obscure or overdone. The unrelenting effortfulness of the writing wears the reader down: genuine effects – a flat, shimmering ocean ‘stitched to the sky by diving gannets’, a muffled gunshot ‘loud ... enough for the whole huge wrinkled bag of night to collapse’ – are drowned in a sea of flash imprecisions, as in an armoured car’s ‘chuckling’ wheels, a beached boat ‘sad as a doomed cathedral’. Phrases like these, together with other forms of overwriting (sheer pretension, simple redundancy), form the ground or base of Hall’s prose, and lead eventually to subversive suspicions. Is there not, one begins to wonder, a temperamental affinity between author and protagonist, a fatal attraction to ‘bigness’, for example, an urge to control and impress one’s personality upon everything, to self-dramatise and inflate?
This suspicion is reinforced by the depiction of Buchanan’s ‘enemies’ (actually his friends, since, as the Book of Proverbs puts it, ‘the blows of a friend are faithful, but the kisses of the enemy are treacherous’). Eventually, Buchanan’s misrule generates an obscure (and obscurely rendered) network of resistance, at the head of which stands his antitype: Peter Taverner, the Wild Dog. Whereas Buchanan is helpless in the outback, Taverner is completely at home in it (‘he had the strength to measure up to the land’), a symbolic opposition established early on, when the two characters are brought together in the first and best of several quasi-apocalyptic set-pieces. The ‘incredible masculinity’ of Taverner’s appearance is matched by macho – or at least manly – personal qualities: carelessness of safety, indifference to property, self-reliance, impatience with pretence, slowness to anger, quiet imperturbability. These, of course, are precisely the qualities (minus humour and a matey attraction to Fosters) of Crocodile Dundee, the very type of the ‘fairy-tale’ Australian off whom Buchanan and his public feed. Though Buchanan and his manipulators are also stereotyped, they are grotesquely, fantastically extreme. The forces of light – not just Taverner, but the noble aboriginal doctor Luke Head, and Buchanan’s wife Dorina – are less inventively conceived, and harder to accept. Their clichéd goodness suggests that Hall himself is implicated in the illusions he deplores, that, for all his prophetic high-seriousness, he too, like Buchanan, has nothing much to offer in the way of genuine vision.
Helen Garner, author of Postcards from Surfers, belongs to a very different fictional tradition – a more modest one – but her reputation in Australia is at least as high as Hall’s. Monkey Grip (1977), Garner’s first and only full-length novel, won the Australian National Book Council Award in 1978, and she too has been supported by the Literature Board, as well as by other forms of subsidy. Postcards from Surfers, only the second of her books to be published in Britain, consists of ten spare, unsparing short stories, some of them no longer than a page or two, followed by a novella, ‘The Children’s Bach’, published in Australia in 1983. At the heart of this novella, whose disturbing power recalls the fiction of Ian McEwan and Christina Stead, lies a family on the brink of collapse. Dexter and Athena, the parents, can barely bring themselves to check that their children are asleep at night before abandoning them in their beds to roam the streets of suburban Melbourne, gossiping, singing, aimlessly wandering. Athena holds the family together – just – but her vague, abstracted placidity, like that of someone ‘half-dead’, is itself precarious. Dexter, like the father in The Man Who Loved Children, is full of boisterous, heedless high spirits. Instead of entering a room, he ‘floods’ it, ‘charging’ to the table, ‘plunging’ into his seat, reaching across to ‘wedge’ a piece of cake into a child’s mouth. As he stands before the stove at a family dinner, rooting about in a puddle of oil, the women in the house scatter: ‘his volley of oaths, his tremendous singing drove them as far as the bottom of the yard.’ Philip, a ‘friend’ (he will eventually cuckold Dexter), calls him ‘a character out of a Russian novel, or a Wagner opera. A noble soul’ – but this never quite proves to be the case, the novella being too controlled, too circumspect for such characters.
The ominous volatility and disconnectedness of the family are recounted in a cool, matter-of-fact manner, as if its strangeness were somehow unremarkable. This matter-of-factness is seen also in a series of violent narrative surprises. Elizabeth, an old college friend of Dexter’s, who turns up at the beginning of the novella, strolls into a shop and begins stealing things. We’ve had no preparation for her behaviour at all, and the narrative immediately moves on. Athena waits at a tram stop, exchanges a friendly look with a man in an orange camper, gets in, drives straight out of the city, deep into the desert. In the next line she’s still waiting for the tram, this being the first of several sudden, destabilising fantasies. The simplest descriptive passages are often comparably violent and unsettling. It starts to rain: ‘a mass, a block, a volume of water crashed on the roof.’ Philip bends down to clip his daughter’s nails: ‘He dug the lower blade of the clipper under the nail of her big toe and snapped the handle to. She gasped.’
The novella’s milieu, like that of most of the stories, is seedily bohemian. Dexter and Athena are hippies of a sort (the highminded, whole-grain sort); Philip plays in a band and hangs out in clubs; Elizabeth is an actress, with spike heels and a hard glamour. The lives of the principal adult characters consist of ‘long, effortless, curving afternoons unsnagged by obligation or haste’. All are in their early forties, too old for such rootlessness, but too feckless or cool or abstracted (except, eventually, in Athena’s case) to change anything. Neither family life nor ‘the rough sexual world that lies outside families’ offers much satisfaction, and the wider world – the world of work, for example – rarely impinges. Nor does the land, so often a saving alternative in Australian fiction, play a part in their lives, even as a significant absence. With the exception of music – the novella’s only grace note – everything is observed, by characters and narrator alike, with the same flat reserve.
What emerges more clearly in the stories than the novella, and helps to explain the novella’s cool pessimism, is the complicity of Garner’s narrators and protagonists, their attraction, for example, to the fathers and lovers who let them down. ‘Tomorrow I will be less the beaten dog,’ thinks one such narrator, as she lies awake next to a callous, philandering lover (his snoring is ‘as loud as a jackhammer’). ‘I want a man who’ll look after me and love me,’ declares a character from ‘The Life of Art’, one of the best of the stories. ‘Women like us,’ the narrator, her friend, replies,
don’t have men like that ... men won’t do those things for women like us. We’ve done something to ourselves so men won’t do it. Well – there are men who will. But we despise them.
A comparable but unspecified mood of complicity pervades the novella, and limits it. Though full of powerful effects, there’s something dead-end about this fiction, as though the author was finally too close to the worlds she evokes (a criticism made of her earlier fiction as well), and too deeply implicated in their defeats. In this respect, if in no other, Garner’s writing recalls that of Rodney Hall.
Frank Moorhouse, author of Forty-Seventeen, is probably the best-known of the writers treated here (he’s also the oldest, being in his fifties, rather than forties). Moorhouse’s published work includes seven volumes of short stories and several anthologies, and he too, despite a long connection with alternative or counter-cultural scenes, has benefited from state subsidy, from the Literature Board in particular. Like Hall, Moorhouse takes the contrast between urban life and outback as a central theme, but his treatment of this theme is often ironical, and always knowing. ‘What are you doing out there,’ asks a character in Forty-Seventeen, as the narrator-protagonist wanders into the bush at night. ‘Having a piss,’ he replies, as he crawls back into their tent. His companion, a woman, is reassured: ‘I thought for a moment you were communing.’ This self-consciousness extends to Moorhouse’s style, which is as ‘experimental’ as Hall’s – full of modish indeterminacies, discontinuities, magical collocations – but has none of Hall’s oracular solemnity.
The narrator of Forty-Seventeen (his name, for no very obvious reason, is withheld until the novel’s conclusion) is a journalist-turned-diplomat, a failed writer in mid-life crisis, and the stories he tells – mostly self-contained vignettes – comprise what Moorhouse calls a ‘discontinuous narrative’ (the subtitle of three previous collections, and a form he has compared to Salinger’s Glass family stories). The narrator is divorced, but in the course of the book we learn a good deal about his ex-wife, as well as about several of his lovers (unlike the wife, these lovers are sexually advanced, and the writing is often raunchily explicit – a Moorhouse trademark). The subsidiary characters – the women – are vividly particularised, but they are also clearly functional, the narrator having been drawn to them by their power to evoke defining moments, settings, ancestral ‘psychic traces’, as well as by a magical connection to the numbers 40 (the narrator’s age) and 17 (among other things, the age at which his character was decisively changed). Mostly the narrator offers a psychological account of these connections (their manic proliferation signals breakdown), but at times they also suggest the presence of a larger destiny at work in his life. Whatever their origins, though, they soon cease to surprise, and eventually the novel has to be jolted back to life by less cryptic revelations – the introduction of hitherto unsuspected aspects of the narrator’s character and history. Though the novel ends on a vaguely optimistic note, no very clear progress or development underlies it.
This is a real defect (for all the stress on discontinuity), but it is hard to see it as representatively ‘Australian’ – as opposed, say, to Post-Modern. Though Forty-Seventeen, like the other works discussed in this review, fails to meet the often inflated claims made on behalf of recent Australian fiction, parochialism or lack of sophistication is hardly its problem.