Australian Circles

Jonathan Coe

  • The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey
    Faber, 279 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 571 16297 5
  • The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall
    Faber, 214 pp, £13.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 571 16482 X

Both of these Australian novels describe circles. Carey, forsaking the confident historical sweep of Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker to focus once again on the horrors of modern suburbia, traces the vicious circles of a family history in which successive generations are debilitated by a legacy of abuse. Rodney Hall tells of a convict at large in New South Wales in 1838, caught up in larger, even more powerful cycles of captivity and exploitation, until he finds temporary sanctuary with an Aboriginal tribe and becomes ‘the very centre of their circle’. Both novels end with violence: but only Carey’s has the nervous optimism to suggest that this might provide a means, however damaging, of breaking loose from an imprisoning pattern.

The setting for most of his novel is Catchprice Motors, a terminally run-down used car business founded by Frieda Catchprice in the Forties but now resembling nothing more than a ‘badly tended family grave’. The Catchprices live in Franklin, New South Wales, which used to be a country town twenty miles from Sydney: since then Sydney has swollen out of recognition (it’s now the second biggest city in the world, after Calcutta), and suddenly Franklin finds itself only two miles along the F4 from the outermost suburbs. Responsibility for running the business rests mainly with Frieda’s daughter Cathy, a rather miserably aspiring Country and Western singer, and her sleazeball husband Howie, who sports a pencil-thin moustache and ‘a secret rash which stopped in a clean line at his collar and the cuffs of his shirt’. Cathy’s brother Mort is a more sporadic presence, while the other brother, Jack, has taken the wisest course of all and left Franklin for good: even if, as he sometimes admits to himself, all his best endeavours can never rescue him from being ‘a Catchprice – damaged, compromised, expedient’. There are also Frieda’s two grandchildren, Vish, who has joined the Krishnas as a way of escaping his family, and Benny, of whom more later. Readers who swooned over the glassy polish of Oscar and Lucinda, with its loving re-creation of Victorian proprieties, are likely to find The Tax Inspector bracingly contemporary, flagging its cultural map with all sorts of markers ranging from Judas Priest to Derek and Clive. In this respect it harks back to Bliss and to Carey’s early short stories, although its sourly comic vision of Australian life, in which what seems at first to be mere quirkiness rapidly shades into the downright sinister, appears to have its closest affinities with recent cinematic exports such as Jane Campion’s Sweetie and John Ruane’s Death in Brunswick. (Particularly the latter, since in this novel Carey has made a brave and largely successful attempt to reflect the diversity of Australia’s immigrant culture, with all its attendant conflicts and resentments.)

The Catchprices are, of course, sitting on dynamite: metaphorically, in that the whole family is nothing but a powder keg of hurt and anger just waiting to explode, and literally, in that the 86-year-old Frieda keeps a box of the stuff stashed away at the bottom of her wardrobe. The lighting of the metaphorical fuse takes place on a Monday morning (the action of the book covering only four days) with the arrival of a Tax Inspector, Maria Tarkis, who is Greek and eight months pregnant. Her arrival, described with a surface neutrality which nonetheless rumbles with portentousness, made me wonder at once why this figure has not featured more prominently in modern fiction. There can be few professions more loaded with the potential for transforming other people’s existence. In fact, Mort puts this very point to Maria when he suggests: ‘It must have occurred to you ... that what you decide affects our whole life.’

The eventual irony is that her investigation decides nothing and is actually thwarted by powers outside her control: the supposed agent of organisation and authority, sent to expose the Catchprices’ flailing hopelessness, turns out to be equally at the mercy of circumstance. We get an early hint of this when Maria finds herself attracted to Jack because he is ‘in control of his life’. Five pages later Benny is also boasting that he is ‘in control of my own life’, and it transpires that this is more than a chance echo, because both Benny and Maria have been listening to the same loopy self-help cassettes which offer ‘Affirmations and Actualisations’. The violence of their showdown in the final scene of the book exposes the terrible drive to power which such philosophies encode: to be in control of your own life, after all, you have to be in control of everybody else’s first. Carey is especially qualified to make us realise this because his most brilliant gift is for plotting: he lays subtle, thorough subterranean plots which seem to flower organically into lifelike tangles of crossed paths and hidden interdependence.

And yet he is still a master of the occasional shock effect. We know that Benny’s mother Sophie once tried to shoot him and then ran away from home, but we have to wait more than a hundred pages to find out why:

When Benny was three years old, his mother was only twenty-three. Her name was Sophie Catchprice. She had bell-bottomed jeans and long blonde hair like Mary in Peter Paul and Mary. She had bare feet and chipped red nail-polish on her toenails. She stood at the door of her bedroom one Saturday afternoon and saw her husband sucking her younger son’s penis.

What’s admirable here is that Carey manages not only to shock us but at the same time to fill us with a sense of things falling horribly into place. Up until this point Benny has been a progressively more worrying enigma, but it has still been possible, just about, to write him off as one more mixed-up adolescent. But now, by his timing of this revelation, Carey turns the book around on itself, at once laying bare the severity of Benny’s trauma and raising a host of shapeless fears about the severity of the penance he is likely to demand.

I wasn’t expecting this. The upbeat blurb (which just tells us that Benny ‘wants to become an angel’) led me to anticipate an exercise in the wackier reaches of magic realism. But The Tax Inspector is a much blacker novel than that, and several passages had me thinking of Thomas Harris – though Carey insists he has never read any of his novels. Benny’s hellish underground hideaway (‘The air was as thick as a laundry. The concrete floor was half an inch deep in water’) has distinct overtones of Jame Gumb’s basement in The Silence of the Lambs; his obsession with angels (he has an enormous one tattooed on his back) recalls Francis Dolarhyde’s sub-Blakean mysticism; and the shaving-off of all his body hair seems very much the sort of thing that one of Harris’s sexually-disoriented psychopaths would do. Above all, there is the emphasis on control, transformation, ‘becoming’. ‘I cannot be what I am’ is Benny’s dangerously meaningless mantra, his howl of rage at finding himself encircled within a family nightmare which threatens endless repetition: for Mort was abused by his father, just as Mort abused Benny and Benny will abuse his children. This is what gives the climactic tug of war its edge – there is simply more at stake here than in one of Harris’s thrillers – and also what gives a fierce poignancy to Carey’s image of the Catchprice land (the land upon which Frieda once wanted to start a flower farm) concreted over ‘like a smothered baby’. Were it not for Carey’s unfailing generosity to his characters – to whom he always accords, at the very least, the dignity of a voice and a story – and the teeming authenticity of his invention, this might have been an intensely depressing novel: as it is, the grimiest of subject matter has been transformed by technique (in its widest sense) into something which approaches exhilaration.

To move on from Carey’s well-organised chaos to the altogether sparser world of another novel from Australia, Rodney Hall’s The Second Bridegroom, is to encounter a sudden and drastic change not only in setting but in literary temperament. Acclimatising yourself to the new milieu is difficult at first. Where Carey fills every scene with a mad clutter of detail, reluctant to let any character, however peripheral, walk across the page without acquiring some degree of psychological and physical density, the few, ragged protagonists of Hall’s novel emerge patchily, caught in glimpses behind a mist of suggestions, allusions and teasingly scattered clues. Both novelists write in an awareness of history (from the grand, but still manageable perspective of white Australian history, that is), and so a common theme, one which might necessarily appear less urgent, less present to the contemporary British writer, is land and the violence which can be done to it. But whereas Carey sees the Australian soil as a child, aged by layer upon layer of futile adult enterprise – the Catchprices’ chook farm, followed by their used car business, followed by their petrol station, and so on – Rodney Hall writes of a time when the spoliation was only beginning.

This means that for his narrator/hero (a British convict who has escaped and fallen in with ‘savages’ in the uncharted wilds of New South Wales) any sign of white civilisation impinging upon the landscape comes as a shock. There is a particularly telling moment when, after wandering more than a year with the Aboriginal guardians he designates with the single word ‘Men’, he is suddenly brought face to face with an unmistakable token of his own heritage:

Then we came to a fence. Imagine it. The fence baffled me as if I had never seen one before. Most likely I cried out. The Men would certainly have no name for this thing so I gave it the name I had brought with me. Fence ... The fence marked a boundary across changed land. Grass inside the fence, though it might look like grass outside, was not at all the same: that grass was Property, as this was Nature.

Confronted by this fence, the narrator is made to realise how intimately his language is bound up with processes of appropriation and partition. He notices that the posts have been squared with an adze, and ‘so it came about that the word adze required the object adze’: the language of colonialists creating the instruments of colonialism. This is by way of contrast with the language of the Aboriginals, so different from his own that at first he doesn’t recognise it as language at all: ‘I realised that what I had taken for murmurous foliage was the speech of these creatures. Talk flew among them, alighting on one and a moment later on another, till it took up a rhythm. The pulse of the sea drifted into their mouths and out again as chanting.’ This language is therefore equal to the natural miracles of the Australian landscape, miracles by which the narrator himself is literally dumbstruck: ‘If my names for these marvels do not convince you, this is not to say the marvels are not there – simply that English has nothing to know them by. I do the best I can because I want you to understand that there is something to be understood out there, something free of the law, free of any comforting faith in a God whose motives may be explained through our own, something that has become the map of my heart.’

The dangers in dealing with this kind of material are self-evident: the world certainly doesn’t need an Australian Dances with Wolves (Dances with Dingoes, maybe?). But Hall declines to idealise his Aborigines – their brutal execution of a young female member of the tribe, for instance, is carried out for reasons which we aren’t allowed to fathom – and never implies that his hero (with whom they refuse to eat or bathe) can be comfortably assimilated into their way of life. There’s also a level of irony at work which militates against sentimentality. The narrator – his name is also Hall, by the way, so a degree of authorial complicity is clearly intended – writes with a considerable understanding of the contradictions of his position: without much formal education, he has still managed to read a fair amount in the course of his printer’s apprenticeship, and is therefore articulate enough to carry the burden of (Rodney) Hall’s own insights. His prose in itself – lucid, supple and passionate as it is – carries a great deal of weight. Where he comes unstuck is at the level of plot.

For The Second Bridegroom, despite being very much a ‘poet’s novel’ in its use of a thickly resonant and figurative language, also has a first-rate plot, one which clicks shut as neatly as any whodunnit and whose purpose is to reveal the narrator caught in the coils of his own self-delusion. We gradually learn that he has been transported for forgery (one of the book’s finest passages draws a savage analogy between forgery and colonisation) and that the book which he attempted to forge – hoping to pass it off as being printed by Caxton – was a commentary on the subject of ‘Twofold Victims of Fate’. This leads on to the story of the Goddess of Kirk Braddon, who is supposed to have lived in the narrator’s birthplace, the Isle of Man, when the Vikings began their raids, and who took two bridegrooms each year, one for the winter and one for the summer, so that ‘each had the task of killing the husband who had lain with her for the six months before him.’ It was only when the tradition was broken, the summer king killing the winter king, that the Goddess lost her power, ‘Christians were among us,’ and ‘the age of kings began. There will be no end to wars until a second bridegroom brings back the peace.’

Towards the end of the novel we begin to realise that in the desperate and messy events unfolding at this distant outpost of ‘civilisation’, the narrator sees a re-enactment of the ancient ritual, and casts himself in the role of the second bridegroom. If he finds in the hitherto unspoilt beauty of Australia an echo of that godlessness which will bring an end to wars and which feels like ‘the map of my heart’, he soon learns that it is beyond the power of one man to restore it by undoing the work of history. And so the novel ends on a bitterly ironic note, with the news that an Irish convict is setting up a property on the land and calling it ‘Paradise’, and we close the book feeling that Hall has enlarged our understanding, no less impressively than Carey, of the ways in which ‘our ancient stories curl round on themselves to bite their own tails’.