A healthy diversity

The last year or so has yielded a good crop of new Australian fiction writers, including Tom Cho, Jacinta Halloran, Steven Amsterdam, Nam Le, Vivienne Kelly and Patrick Cullen. Beyond the fact that (with the notable exception of Nam Le) they are all supported by small independent publishers, the most striking thing about these writers is how unalike they are. A healthy diversity would seem to be the general rule – an impression that is only reinforced by these four debut novels, none of which resembles any of the others. In fact, they are all over the shop, both in style and substance. Urban realism; nightmare visions; fervour and disaffection; dodgy metaphors; historical reflection; woolly cultural theorising that hovers somewhere between provocative and pretentious; writing that varies in quality from excellent to workmanlike to wretched – and that’s just David Sornig’s Spiel.

Easily the most ambitious of the four, Spiel is also the most erratic. The novel, which divides its narrative between Berlin and suburban Melbourne, has some interesting, and perhaps self-conscious, affinities with AL McCann’s Subtopia (2005) and Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe (2005). Like Tsiolkas’ novel in particular, it makes effective use of the symbolic contrast between its two settings, with the Old World of Europe imagined as a site of corruption and depravity that the narrator, Karl, experiences as a kind of menacing dream world. The plot of this structurally complex novel is too involved to summarise – in fact, at certain points, disorientation is used as a deliberate strategy – but it is based around a trip the narrator undertakes to Berlin following the death of his ‘Onkel Hans’. There he encounters a mysterious blind woman who may or may not be his childhood pen pal Rosa Stumm (whose surname is German for ‘mute’). She invites him to take part in a mysterious ‘game’ that begins when they attend a production of The Magic Flute, which is promptly bombed in a terrorist attack. From there, the novel veers into a feverish journey through Berlin’s underworld, interspersed with flashbacks to Karl’s life in Melbourne, and punctuated by censored excerpts from his Stasi-monitored childhood correspondence with Rosa. These various narrative threads are developed alongside passages of millenarian speculation about the unsustainability of urban civilisation and musings about the legacy of Germany’s postwar history, all of which ultimately gravitates towards Karl’s confrontation with his family’s dark past.

Some of Spiel’s uneven quality is due to the inconsistency of the writing. At its best, the novel’s visionary strangeness has a compelling quality that works on a kind of metafictional level, whereby the novel itself becomes a ‘game’. At times, Sornig’s prose takes on a hardboiled intensity that has immediacy and vividness. The book contains several sharply-written passages and the more realistic sections set in Australia, which adopt a more restrained tone, are the work of a writer who can build a scene to good effect. But there are a lot of clangers. The narrator is made to stick doggedly to the present tense, even when it makes a grammatical nonsense of his sentences: ‘Two months ago Annie and Katja are still the closest of friends, but they fall out over some trifle’; ‘The Potsdamer Bahnhof is built three years earlier in 1838’. A degree of overwriting is sometimes evident (‘I keep looking out to the dim horizon, searching for the glow that’s drifting out there in the offing like an iceberg’), and some analogies are bewildering (‘I listen with the patience of a submarine’).

But what ultimately renders Spiel a bit of a muddle is its convoluted intellectual pretensions. A novel that attempts too much is certainly preferable to one that attempts too little (a more common failing), but at times Spiel threatens to capsize under the weight of its own ambition. It is loaded with ponderous allusions of dubious relevance and its heavy-handed use of virgin/whore imagery mostly seems crass rather than illuminating. ‘How Freud might have salivated’ indeed. And the episode late in the novel, in which Karl and a companion attend a university party dressed in SS uniforms, seems to me badly misjudged. His shonky theorising in honour of the occasion is, I hope, intended as a tasteless joke: ‘If the Nazis had survived they would have invented television programs with a swastika watermark in the corner. The Late Show, brought to you by Zyclon-B. That’s why they still appeal to us today.’

Really? Who’s ‘us’, exactly? Karl claims that the purpose of his stunt is ‘to mock the university people, to provoke them out of their complacency’: he declares that ‘what I’ve really done is to expose just how much of a dress-up the Nazis have become to people’. But the effect of his musings on fascism and the mass media, and his apparently conclusive demonstration of his colleagues’ historical shallowness (which is actually glib: he’s the one who dresses up), is to make him appear unpleasantly smug. If exposing Karl’s own shallowness is meant to be the overriding point of the episode, this is not made clear. Given that Spiel ultimately seeks to make a gesture of atonement for the sins of the past, Karl’s knowing attitude at this late stage of the novel strikes a discordant note, making him seem callow and superior at the very point where he is supposed to be contrite, and making the novel seem facile where it most wants to be profound.

Enza Gandolfo’s Swimming is a very different kind of novel. Its narrator, Kate, is a writer who is prompted to re-examine her past after she unexpectedly encounters her ex-husband, Tom, at the opening of a photography exhibition. The breakdown of their marriage and her ongoing feelings of inadequacy about her failure to have children are explored through two levels of narration: Kate’s present reflections, which are drawn out in conversations with Tom’s daughter from his second marriage, and the text of an abandoned work called ‘Writing Sarah’, in which Kate once attempted to write a loosely fictionalised version of her experiences. Through this dual structure the novel opens up questions about the elusive nature of memory, the role of the creative process in shaping and understanding the past, and the compulsion that lies behind this shaping process.

Swimming is, for the most part, a purposeful and soundly written novel that has a few minor flaws: the dialogue is sometimes wooden and earnest; its moments of personal crisis tend towards the sentimental; some of its attempts at lyricism strain for effect. But its primary shortcoming is that it is just plain dull. It focuses intensely on Kate’s psychodrama at the expense of actual drama. Solipsistic anguish and soul-searching about the failure to procreate, even when punctuated by a few symbolic dips in the ocean, are simply not enough to sustain more than 300 pages. When, about two-thirds of the way through, her friend Lynne finally breaks into Kate’s preoccupied consciousness to deliver the blunt message that she is being self-indulgent, the effect is salutary, not necessarily because Kate’s personal suffering is unwarranted, but because the intervention briefly introduces a moment of genuine tension into a narrative that is too reliant on over-elaborated confession to move itself forward.

Gandolfo is striving for a form of emotionally raw domestic realism in the manner of Helen Garner or Amanda Lohrey – a fictional mode that looks simple, though the evidence would suggest it is fiendishly tricky to write well. But Swimming does not display either the crystalline prose style or the disciplined fictional technique that makes those authors so affecting. There is often little sense that any distinction is being made between a detail that brings a character or scene into sharp relief and one that is simply mundane. Instead of a careful process of selection and delineation, the descriptions often seem to be operating on the opposite principle: anything and everything Kate notices or thinks in passing is mentioned with the assumption, or perhaps the hope, that it will add up to something meaningful. But frankly I don’t feel I understand Tom’s character any better for being told that he makes the kitchen messy when he cooks and is quite fond of cheese.

Like Gandolfo’s novel, Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game carves out a solid slice of realism, but in a more dynamic fashion and to very different ends. It tells the story of three siblings: Alice, Louise and Jeremy. From the outset, we know that the youngest, Jeremy, has been killed in a house fire in 1991. The narrative divides itself between short chapters describing Jeremy’s impressions of the events leading up to his death, and longer chapters, set in the present, told from the points of view of Alice and Louise. The sisters are, in their different ways, still wrestling with the trauma of their brother’s death and the fact that, in the wake of the fire, their mother disappeared and their father abandoned himself to alcoholism. When the wayward Louise returns to Melbourne to escape the dissolute life she has been leading in Sydney, she moves in with her more sober older sister. The two of them begin to go over the events of the past and decide to track down and confront their missing mother.

The Danger Game develops, in a somewhat tentative fashion, two strong and worthwhile themes. The title refers to a game the three siblings played as children, in which they would dare each other to perform ever more risky stunts. Embracing risk was, as Louise remembers it, a form of existential affirmation, an assertion of individual freedom: ‘In the danger game,’ she states, ‘I had a choice about what happened in my life.’ But, as Alice reminds her, there is a double-edged quality to such recklessness. There are two ways of understanding it: ‘You used to say it was about throwing yourself open to chance … Now it’s control.’ This idea is interestingly contextualised by the novel’s social dimension. Alice works as a teacher in a disadvantaged, fund-starved public school and there is a subplot about the teachers’ attempts to resist its closure. While the book does make the obvious political point about the rank injustice of the situation, the juxtaposition of themes implies a more far-reaching point about the mutually reinforcing quality of powerlessness and despair. If freedom means being able to have some control over one’s own destiny, there are times when embracing risk can seem like the only available path to freedom.

The novel’s divided perspective is underscored by the fact that Alice’s chapters are written in the first person, Louise’s in the second person, and Jeremy’s in the third person. This gives The Danger Game a distinct scheme, but as a way of delineating the characters it does reveal some limitations. It is not quite the same thing as crafting a distinct idiolect for each sibling, even though there is some attempt in Jeremy’s chapters to write in a simplified language that reflects his child’s-eye view of the world. Louise’s chapters, in particular, are sometimes technically shaky. The idea that second person narration almost never works has become something like received critical wisdom, which is perhaps a good enough reason for trying to prove it wrong, but there are specific constraints that make it problematic. The reason addressing a character as ‘you’ often seems awkward is relatively straightforward: a second person narration implies a first person narrator, a speaker who is addressing ‘you’. Thus it is subject to the same strictures as a first person narrator. Unlike a third person free-indirect style, which can hover between omniscience and an implicit reflection of a character’s perspective, a second person narration is tied to a specific point of view and is further restricted by the fact that it is addressed to someone in particular. Thus the act of narrating simple actions is rendered strange: ‘You eat peanut butter straight out of the container, sticking your finger back in the jar and then licking it off.’ (Other than to accuse someone of bad manners, who would ever say or think such a sentence?) And it tends to jar when contextualising facts need to be introduced: ‘Ted was your publicly funded drug counsellor when you got caught shoplifting years ago,’ for example. Now, either this is an observation made to Louise by someone else (who?) or, as we are probably meant to assume, it is Louise mentally addressing herself. Either way, it is a very peculiar thing to say: wouldn’t she know this already?

This, I stress, though not insignificant, is a mild criticism. While the claim on the back cover that The Danger Game ‘hits every note – on every page’ is something of a stretch, it does have a breathy urgency that captures some of the youthful vitality of its characters. The back and forth between past and present and the steady convergence of the various plot strands is adroitly handled, taking on something of an inexorable quality in the latter stages as the narrative builds to an effective climax. As a first novel, The Danger Game is a promising work.

But the pick of the four is Patrick Allington’s Figurehead, an original and remarkably poised novel loosely based on the lives of the radical journalist Wilfred Burchett and Khieu Samphan, a prominent figure in the Khmer Rouge. Allington’s fictional protagonists, Ted Whittlemore and Nhem Kiry, are on friendly terms well before the Khmer Rouge comes to power. Whittlemore is, at first, a supporter, believing that the Khmer Rouge ‘aren’t perfect but they’re good people doing what they have to for their country’. He helps Kiry avoid an assassination attempt, only to look on with horror as the Khmer Rouge seize control of Cambodia and begin their reign of genocidal slaughter.

Figurehead is interested in the collapse of Whittlemore’s misplaced faith in communism and the morally compromising nature of high-stakes politics, but it pursues these themes in a curiously offbeat manner. The novel does not dwell on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. We witness Kiry’s cold blooded betrayal of his comrade Bun Sody, but are not given any specific information about his role in the genocide. Instead, the open secret that he is implicated functions throughout the novel as a kind of received knowledge that taints his every action. Most of the drama is acted out at a political level that is removed from the reality of conflict. There are droll cameo appearances by Henry Kissinger and Fidel Castro, and Prince Sihanouk plays a significant supporting role as a clownish figure who is nevertheless slightly smarter than anyone gives him credit for. His canny ability to endure, thanks largely to his intuitions about the limitations of his own power, acts as a subtle counterpoint to Whittlemore’s confusedly idealistic understanding of the situation. To someone who is a ruthless political animal, a person who declines to advance their cause in the name of morality will seem unrealistic; for the moralist, someone who behaves in a politically ruthless way is cynical and monstrous: Whittlemore is compromised because he fancies himself as both moral and realistic, and thus ends up being convincingly neither. Early in the novel, he is interviewing Sihanouk and starts up a moralising riff about the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk interrupts: ‘You once told me that politics is getting the right result by any means.’

Figurehead is, in part, a satire on the weird amorality, the oddly detached sense of unreality, that can prevail in international diplomacy. There is something both grotesque and absurd about Kiry striding the world stage as an official representative of the Cambodian government, protesting his country’s victimisation at the hands of the Vietnamese invaders who halted the genocide perpetrated by his own party. There is a cleverly drawn moment when Whittlemore is listening to Kiry address the UN. Delegates from several countries begin to walk out in protest and Whittlemore catches himself feeling thoroughly bored with the whole empty charade, rather than being filled with the kind of genuine outrage it warrants.

In Whittlemore and Kiry, Allington has created two intriguing but slightly elusive characters, neither of whom is particularly given to self-reflection. Though Whittlemore is troubled by the fact that his idealism turned out to be so horribly misplaced, he tends to redirect his cognitive dissonance outwards: he is accusatory, believing himself betrayed. Kiry, on the other hand, remains completely inscrutable. He is a man so unflappable that he is able to remain calm even as a lynch mob storms his house. Nearly the first thing we learn about him is his predilection for a certain brand of expensive skin care lotion, which he applies religiously every day. This one luxury he allows himself is the perfect symbol of his fastidious nature, of the decadence that lies behind his iron discipline, and, most significantly, of his understanding that in his role as government apologist he must remain all surface, all image, presenting the same blank visage to the world, day after day, in order to face down the reality of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes.

What ultimately makes Figurehead an effective novel is the way it sustains the conflicting sense that its scenario is both sinister and ridiculous. Its disciplined technique allows its story’s strangeness to speak for itself; it is not a novel that reaches for profundity, as the other three novels are sometimes tempted to do – often to their own detriment. What it ultimately does is raise questions, without supplying ready-made answers. ‘I had faith in you,’ Whittlemore writes to Kiry at the end of the novel, ‘and a person like me is not supposed to have faith. You let me down. You let a lot of other people down too: all those peasants who believed that you were their champion. Where was your unbending moral code when the people were dying by the millions? Did you have your eyes closed? Were you keeping yourself too busy to notice? Or were you up to your elbows in the murders yourself? And, in the end, what’s the difference?’

James Ley

James Ley is editor of the Sydney Review of Books and author of The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood (2014).

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