It’s May or June , the Cam is stuffed with expensive punts, which in turn are stuffed with moneyed tourists. A bunch of under-employed post-examinal students are dementedly heaving and levering away at one of the massive ornamental granite balls crowning the parapet of one of the college bridges. They’ve prised it loose, the entire river – the strollers and dawdlers and smoochers along the Backs, the rest of the shipping – seems to be watching in horror as it’s directly threatening a punt-load of Japanese tourists: the looming atrocity is of diplomatic, hemispheric, intercultural dimensions. The tourists abandon their vessel, bitterly going over the side with their smartphones and their wallets and their cameras, and next thing the great orb is sitting on the water, maybe 99 per cent above the surface, you never saw anything bobbing like that. The wicked students piss themselves laughing, the bedraggled victims straggle and angrily bark their way ashore through the rushes. That’s how I felt reading the Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning and almost universally adored (some reviewers reached for their Tolstoy; others forbade any comparisons at all) Narrow Road to the Deep North: watching tourists hoaxed by polystyrene.
It used to be that a novel would put you among people, tell you a story or stories, give you some sense of what it might be like to see a different cut-out and perspective of the world: as a schoolteacher, an adulteress, the wife of a member of Parliament, an officer, a cockroach. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the novel in an advanced and showy state of dissolution. It is as though the contemporary novel – like film (4-D, coming soon to a cinema near you), like theatre, like so much else – is in competition with itself, falling over itself to offer you more interiority, more action, more understanding, more vision. But the form, the vessel, is an exploded form; it is basically rubble, fragmentary junk, debris. It’s not even leaky anymore; it can hold nothing. The human focus – here, an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans – is neither formed by his experience, nor capable of his actions, which for a novel is pretty disabling. He is one character – or one character’s name – irritatingly and implausibly played by five actors: the boy, the Aussie-rules-playing youth, the romantic lead, the suffering hero, the old adulterous geezer who ‘skulled the last of the last Glenfiddich miniature’ before leaving behind his ‘book of Japanese death poems’. More likely, he is a mechanical record of endurance, plus pixels, plus medical destiny. Nothing that won’t fit onto a screen.
This novel is truly an entitled thing: it demands both action and high-value misty contemplation or ‘memory’. It is a universal solvent, or claims to be. You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew. The quantity of expensive set-piece or special effect scenes on offer is astonishing: a sudden deadly explosion in wartime, a hotel fire, a Japanese slave-labour camp in the Burmese jungle with half-starved Australian POWs in ‘cock rags’, a hanging, an amputation without implements or drugs, a fatal car crash, rescue from a forest fire in a big old American street-cruiser, and I’m sure I’ve left some out. Oh yes, a romantic reunion on Sydney Harbour Bridge. There are scenes in Tasmania, in two or three cities on the big island, in Syria, Burma, Korea, Japan. And yet this is a book – and a really chi-chi book, one would have to say – that has a memorably awful false beginning with light (opening sentence: ‘Why at the beginning of things is there always light?’), and an awful false ending with a flower (I wish it had said: ‘Why at the end of things is there always a flower?’); a book that says trust me, I’m sensitive, that offers you, repeatedly offers you, all the tender and sensitive things: light, and ‘gas-flame’ eyes, and women’s hands running down your ‘withered’ thigh. But these things are all quoted, all sampled, they are all well-loved items from a catalogue or anthology, an exploded anthology, just as the title is Basho and the epigraphs are from Issa and Celan, and the Tennyson never stops.
In construction, the book is the half-hearted retrospective of a dying old man (the life flashing before the eyes – think of something like Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil) that forsakes its tether for the more leisurely freedom of an impersonal series of chronological flashbacks; only to leave that in turn for an account of other characters in their own personal circumstances, in Australia, in Japan, in Korea, of which Dorrigo Evans can have known little or nothing at all. The final effect is of an unplanned collage, a rather sticky collage. It is the story of Evans, half-submerged in a group biography of fellow survivors and alien torturers; a war story, half-lost in the subsequent peaceful and prosperous career of a national celebrity, a medical man and a ladies’ man; a brutal, cartoonish war novella, swallowed in prequel and long finish. The big losers are scale and consequence. There is no map but a streetview; no dolly but a drone-mounted camera. Except for those who die (the designated, audience-approved victims of any Hollywood film), life goes on, mostly better than before. And what matters in the end is anyone’s guess: Amy or Ella, love or war, heartbreak or beri-beri, the Japanese poetry aficionado (and war criminal) or the Australian Tennysonian (and hero). It’s all sham texture, bossy imagery and compressible or expandable time.
At least two books are at war – fought to a standstill – in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. There are the scenes of comradely endurance and hardship and vile death from South Asia: brisk, transactional, matey and visceral, roughed in rudimentary characters, surges of plot and little rat-a-tat-tat pieces of dialogue (‘He’s looking fucked, said Chum Fahey. His shoe’s fucked, said Sheephead Morton. Same thing, said Chum Fahey.’) These are all heroically and sometimes rather instructionally held up to our pale neophytes’ admiration:
Dorrigo Evans is not typical of Australia and nor are they, volunteers from the fringes, slums and shadowlands of their vast country: drovers, trappers, wharfies, roo shooters, desk jockeys, dingo trappers and shearers. They are bank clerks and teachers, counter johnnies, piners and short-price runners, susso survivors, chancers, larrikins, yobs, tray men, crims, boofheads and tough bastards blasted out of a depression that had them growing up in shanties and shacks without electricity, with their old men dead or crippled or maddened by the Great War and their old women making do on aspro and hope, on soldier settlements, in sustenance camps, slums and shanty towns, in a 19th-century world that had staggered into the mid-20th century.
The choice slang (‘desk jockeys’, ‘aspro’, ‘crims’) masks the somewhat indifferent or disingenuous quality of the thought here: because ‘typical of Australia’ is of course exactly what this one-for-the-price-of-two catalogue means to be, and is.
But there are also elements of a much more pointillist, particulate, unsensational – and precious – book. One drawn persistently to light and dust and ‘moments’: what I rather unfeelingly referred to as ‘pixels’ earlier. This is a bid for atmosphere, soft focus and the destruction of subject matter; certainly, it has both creative and destructive designs. Here is Dorrigo, after a year in a labour camp, getting a letter from Ella – the ‘wrong woman’, though she will be and remain his wife: ‘Two-thirds of the way down the first page, he halted … The letters of Ella’s elegant copperplate hand kept scattering and rising off the page as dust motes, more and more dust motes bouncing off one another, and he was having trouble bringing her face to his mind.’ And then, typically irresolutely, bullyingly and having it all ways: ‘It seemed too real and entirely unreal at the same time.’ This is the author as CERN physicist, bashing matter, albeit with a hammer; Ella may have written the letter, but the message is all Flanagan’s. The destroying and destroyed dust, as many earlier passages spell out, is Amy’s Theme: ‘He was thinking not of hair or eyes but a feeling as baffling as a million dancing and meaningless dust motes.’ The linkage is insistent, and a little overt: ‘For Amy, love was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe. It was annihilation, the destroyer of worlds.’
Ella, meanwhile, is all background – background and metonymy. ‘Ella’s father was a prominent Melbourne solicitor, her mother from a well-known grazing family; her grandfather was an author of the federal constitution.’ Scantily described herself (just the rather humiliating ‘she herself was a teacher’), she seems in lieu of personal happiness to confer life membership of an elite Anglo society: ‘with her came a world … of darkwood living rooms and clubs, crystal decanters of sherry and single malt, the cloying, slightly intoxicating, slightly claustrophobic smell of polished must.’ But this is the author’s doing, not Ella’s; he is making things far too easy for himself. A marriage contracted in wartime can perfectly well involve huge and catastrophic feelings, for the reader as well, as witness, say, Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb. Amy’s marriage to the publican Keith is similarly trotted out in material terms, as a cheaper class of cushion-cover: ‘It felt like the Edwardian horsehair furniture he had refused her requests to replace after their marriage: sagging, comfortable if one nestled in the soft spots and avoided the hard. He was unselfish and he was kind. But he was not Dorrigo.’ Writing like this, commended by reviewers as ‘devastating’ and ‘hugely affecting’ and ‘without an ounce of melodrama’, requires Oscar Wilde’s ‘heart of stone’ to read without laughing. Twenty pages before the end you get this: ‘Thinking: How empty is the world when you lose the one you love.’
The war passages have a bullying automatism that leaves Flanagan quite at sea in the rest of the book. The war won’t settle, and it doesn’t help. It either matters or it doesn’t. Flanagan tries both, and neither seems right. He tries little inserts – subliminal or flashback? – and he tries longer narrative events, for normality or aesthetic dominance? Bigger, hieratic, ordering ideas are so rare as to be conspicuous, and when they do occur – ‘feeling became fashionable’ or ‘the coming of television and with it the attendant idea of celebrity’ – they only make one think wistfully of Les Murray, who handles these things better, with the brilliance and flair of an ironic adman: ‘the Coffee Revolution’ or ‘the Smallgoods Renaissance’. Basically, Flanagan is never happier as an author than when he has a poetry-loving psychopath of a Japanese officer (Colonel Kota) who stares single-mindedly at men’s necks because he has nothing in his own head but how to cut off those of others. Or when he can describe the buttocks of the starving Australian POWs as ‘little more than ropes’ or ‘little more than wretched cables’, or ‘so wasted that the anus protruded obscenely’ or ‘its strange prominence amidst his wasted flesh’ or ‘like a turkshead of filthy rope’. The straightforwardness of wartime leaves the characters wriggling and slithering when it’s over, and the author straining credulity. The Amy/Ella part refuses to have anything to do with the Burma Railway. Can a narrative strand be rejected? Like a donated organ? This one badly wants not to be in the same book. The character of Dorrigo – or is his name Alwyn? – seems to consist in being anything he is required to be: the poetry-loving doctor adulterer survivor hero. The affair with Amy is handily killed off by two spousal lies: Keith’s to Amy (claiming Dorrigo has died in the war), and Ella’s to Dorrigo (claiming it was Amy in a convenient gas explosion at home). Dorrigo doesn’t get to be Zhivago. But Flanagan isn’t ready to give up on his multi-purpose protagonist either:
He was alone in his marriage, he was alone with his children, he was alone in the operating theatre, he was alone on the numerous medical, sporting, charity and veterans’ bodies on which he sat, he was alone when addressing a meeting of a thousand POWs. There was around him an exhausted emptiness, an impenetrable void cloaked this most famously collegial man.
This sounds to me suspiciously and wretchedly like the one hand clapping of an author talking up his hero.
War holds things together – it is the ‘theatre’ – while peace scatters the protagonists and settings, has the author repeatedly stretching and overstretching. Too many of the human ties and turns here seem implausible, unsecured, unbelievable. The vile Orientals age into gentle wisdom. The writing is overstuffed, and leaks sawdust. ‘Peppermint gums’ are ‘writhing’ on one page, and ‘wildly snaking’ on the next. Prisoners are killed ‘like so many flies’ – unless, that is, they are sleeping ‘like logs in their swags’. Dorrigo finds himself ‘the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries’, and in the next sentence: ‘The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation’. There is a kind of descriptive cant that is equally strenuous and inefficient:
Even when he was away from her he could see her, smell her musky neck, gaze into her bright eyes, hear her husky laugh, run his finger down her slightly heavy thigh, gaze at the imperfect part in her hair; her arms ever so slightly filled with some mysterious feminine fullness, neither taut nor flabby but for him wondrous.
This lacks the basic dignity of prose, which should not be heard at first reading to be rhyming; it is ingratiating and gassy. The ‘wondrous’ is luckily left where it is (it’s about as dead as any word can be), which leaves the ‘imperfect’ to be run with. The following sentence begins: ‘Her imperfections multiplied every time he looked at her and thrilled him ever more,’ which doesn’t sound like a good idea, and a contrived resolution four lines further on, ‘more of her perfect imperfections’, is simply bankrupt. It’s hard to believe that the man to whom these responses are credited is not only a reader of Tennyson, but also a doctor on the side.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North has the scope of a big and ambitious novel. It was surely a difficult book to write, covering so much in terms of time, geography, cultures, destinies and outcomes: both an important but difficult piece of Australian history (brave, but also inglorious), and a fictional account, to boot, of the experience of Flanagan’s father, who, as one read in the press, died on the very day the book was completed. (It is said there is nothing of which one knows less and that fascinates one more than the period immediately preceding one’s birth.) The book was described as having gone through many drafts, with Flanagan using those that didn’t make it to ‘light the barbie’. I can’t help thinking this wasn’t the right one to spare.