Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Thea Astley

June, 2011: I bought  It's Raining In Mango (1987), by Thea Astley, from the Anglican Church Book Sale in Cowra for 50c (also the Readers' Digest Guide To Needlecraft, $1).  Back in 1996, when my novel The Showgirl And The Brumby was a finalist in the Vogels Award, one of the judges describe my novel as having "flashes of Thea Astley".  I thought it was about time I read one of her novels, to see what I was a bit like.
I'm afraid to say I'm glad S&B had only "flashes" of Thea Astley, rather than long stretches, and I hope that by novel number three (the one I'm working on tomorrow), I have completely extinguished any trace of her at all.  The worst thing is that I can see what the judge was talking about: colourful language, a strong Australian flavour, clunky plot, and the vague sense that the author is trying to say something serious.  Here's a bit of her colourful, clunky language that I found by opening at random:

Looks rippled between them. One of the girls - Flute! - spluttered with laughter that sounded rude.
Will's face became an interrogation mark. "Did I say something?"
"Grass," Bo explained kindly. "It's pot. Dope." He grinned rather stupidly. "Marijuana."
"Oh," said Will stiffly, "of course. I've heard the term."

Even in that short exchange, we can see how Astley has to poke and prod the story along, poke and prod the characters to play their parts, using a superfluity of adverbs, and exaggerating moods and expressions to make sure the reader doesn't miss what's going on. There were a few Aboriginal characters; as I'm not Aboriginal, and I'm of my generation (rather than Astley's), I'm genuinely uncomfortable with a non-Aboriginal novelist writing a few awkward passages from an Aboriginal character's point of view. If the passages had been good, I probably wouldn't have thought anything of it! Here's an excerpt from one part that made me cringe:
She bin chase that buggy two miles till one of the police he ride back on his horse an shout at her an when she wouldn take no notice she bin run run run an he gallop after her an hit her one two, cracka cracka, with his big whip right across the face so the pain get all muddle with the cryin and she run into the trees beside the track where he couldn follow.
The only part I really liked was reclusive Will's ill-fated love for the beautiful hippie boy, Buckle, about forty years his junior. Flashes of Death In Venice. It's an interesting description of a man who represses his gayness, eschews human relationships, sinks his energy into his huge garden, then, in his sixties, falls violently in love, and experiences for the first time all the humiliation and pain that comes with unrequited love. He finds it unbearable. His sister, Connie, understands what's going on:

[Connie says:] "Sixty years of passivity, Will. Well, it wasn't even that, was it? More like indifference."
"And that's the way I'd like it to go on. If it could. Right to then end. I don't like what's happening inside me. It's as if all my nerve centres have been wired up again and wrong. Hell, Con, I don't want to go on like this."

I'll be giving It's Raining In Mango to Glebe Vinnies, and I bet they mark it up by about six-hundred percent.

Susan McDonald

June, 2011: I posted Rob a copy of my novel, even though he claims (though also admits it's an exaggeration) that he has only read one book* in his thirty-eight years, and that was when he gave his right leg two knees by falling off a motorbike. He sent me a book in return written by someone who lives near (i.e. less than 500 kms away) him in western Queensland: Pinched Or Planted by Susan McDonald, 2010. It is a five-hundred-page book about a mob of cattle, belonging to a neighbour, that appeared in one of Susan and Graeme McDonald's paddocks, the result being that Graeme McDonald was charged with stealing them. As I pulled the book out of the post-pack, I thought, "This could well be the most boring book I've ever tried to read!"

However, it is not boring. It is meticulous, comprehensive and pedantic, but for a reason: the investigation run by the 'Stock Squad' or SARCIS was such a suspiciously inept botch-job, that the McDonalds soon figured out that it was necessary to document everything. Meanwhile, SARCIS officers are all in the habit of cutting-and-pasting from each other's diaries, forgetting to tape-record conversations, taking photos of the wrong things, getting the dates wrong, having huge blank spots in their memories etc. Although McDonald doesn't find out how the cattle got onto Albeni, she certainly shows up the hopeless and probably corrupt practices of the Stock Squad. It really is shameful and shocking! Errol (Blue Murder, Police State, Police Crop and Joh's Jury) should come out of retirement to make a telemovie about the SARCIS corruption. One thing I liked about it was that SARCIS treat McDonald as though she doesn't exist - at the committal hearing, they often forget to mention her when listing the people present during conversations or in gatherings, and only her husband is charged with the theft - and yet, it is her viewpoint that ends up being the most significant. A woman, armed only with notebook and pen, a tape-recorder and - a crucial difference - a brain, gets the better of a whole bunch of dubious men!

This is intelligent and carefully-written raw material. It has not been shaped or structured, and much of it is repetitive (and not repeated once or twice, but multiple times, as they go over and over the same events in the committal hearing). It's fun reading raw material that you can trust, because you can add your own shape to it. But every now and then, while the book sat on my breakfast table from February to June as I inched my way through it, someone would pick it up, then quickly put it down again. It's not for the faint-hearted!

There were very few grammatical mistakes or typos, but there was one very elegant one:

The sedimentary lifestyle was wearing a bit thin for Graeme.

So much more evocative than 'sedentary'! Sitting all day long in a chair does make you feel as though your blood is slowing and setting in clayey layers! I liked reading McDonald's observations about the differences between the town-life she leads during the committal hearing, and her usual back-country-life; she is no knee-jerk city-hater, and appreciates the best part of town life, namely, catching up with friends and family.

*Snouts In The Trough, if I remember rightly.

Ruth Park

June, 2011: Nic lent me Ruth Park's 1977 novel, Swords And Crowns And Rings, before I'd been disappointed by Harp In The South. Swords And Crowns And Rings was sitting there beside my bed after I'd finished Dana's sea-faring account, and I didn't have anything else to read, so I started it. It turned out to be one of the best novels I've read for ages! Park wrote Swords twenty-six years after Harp, so it's hardly surprising that, over the intervening years, she became a better novelist. If her only intention was to write a novel that would make the reader less prejudiced against dwarves, she succeeded; however, another consequence is that she wrote a great love story; another is that she has drawn a frightening, vivid picture of Australia during the Depression (I had no idea it was so bad!); and another is that she uses the novel to express some of her ideas about politics and economics.

It's the type of novel I admire the most: it is packed with ideas and substance (fulfilling the writer's needs), but it never neglects the story (fulfilling the reader's needs). It balances these two forces very evenly. I'd put Dickens a bit further across the scale towards the reader's needs, and Stead further across in the other direction towards the writer's needs...this novel might be squarely in the middle. Though I don't know how useful that reader's-writer's scale is.

Another balance that she gets just right is that between realism, or naturalism, and dramatisation. Having a dwarf for a hero immediately puts us in fairytale territory, as does the title. John Luke Hanna, our hero, loves the little princess-like Cushie, with blonde ringlets and a cold-hearted mother. There are the fierce, huge, brawling brothers with whom Jack Hanna gets his first job - one brother is missing an eye, one is fat, one is dark, one is puny and girlish. There's the journey that Jack and his stepfather undertake when they lose their shop in the Depression. The fairytale structure and motifs are unmistakable, and conscious - and yet, realism underpins everything. She has too much of a social conscience to be satisfied with fantasy. Park has found a story that, though colourful, really could have happened! - she simply allows the fairytale to show through. There's nothing forced about this story, even though it's so intricately constructed. It is masterful! The opposite to a novel like this might be one of the Carver school - those novels that pose as harsh, depressing, bleak realism, but actually are fairytales (if I'm being kind), or bullshit (my true opinion).

With my ongoing interest in alcohol (being all but a teetotaller), I picked up this handy little sentence, about eighteen-year-old Cushie, drinking her way through despair when she stays with her aunt and her aunt's girlfriend in order to have a secret abortion (alcoholism, lesbians, unwanted pregnancies, abortions - typical 'realist' material):

She was very crafty at taking the smallest amount from the bottle when she found it, and putting things back exactly as they had been, so that Claudie or Iris could never be sure whether the bottle had been touched. And it seemed that, with care, an intelligent person could manage to keep a thin veil of alcohol between herself and the sharp corners of life.

Here's a typical passage - colourful, poetic, and completely relevant. Jack comes back to his hometown to visit his mother, who is sick. Jack is shocked by the change he sees in her:

Jackie felt as though the air were full of dust, the familiar roof fallen in, the chimney dry and limey, crumbling. A wild, prophetic imagination conjured up for him weeds on the hearthstone, a doorless cupboard full of nettles, his mother's chair fallen in the corner, pocked with dry rot.

"The sky takes over in the end," remarked the Nun [Jack's stepfather].

Jack looked at him in terror. Then he realised that his stepfather had said something different altogether - something about Maida.

"She's expecting another baby," he said. His mother was pleased. Her toy-soldier cheeks became more empurpled.

Another wise sentence that you can apply to anything - even perhaps your love life - not just politics:

Jackie knew very little about [the new State Premier, Lang], and he had not yet been so conditioned by severe hardship that his mind was stimulated by the sound of any new name, any new proposition.

Jack and the Nun stowaway on a freight train, and jump off just as a notorious guard, Big Owen, is about to bash out their brains. This is one of those sentences that suggest a whole novel of its own:

Jack wondered how many of the hoboes found dead and mutilated beside the line had been thrown off by such as Big Owen, murderous hulks who'd had a whale of a time during the War and now found their m├ętier in the Depression, bashing up tramps.

Many wise sentences. Here is another, formed by Cushie, who became pregnant to Jack - he didn't know, and was forced into marriage with another woman - had an abortion, a crisis, and is now starting to make a better life for herself:

She had accepted that no one could come into another's life without consequences. Jackie had taught her that. She would not want him to feel guilt for anything in her life.

The Nun battles with depression and bed bugs in a slum in Surry Hills:

With the boy gone, he felt as if he had dropped into a sea of pumice. Everything abraded feebly, yielded, fell away beneath him. His sense of hopeless dismay was so profound it was near panic. He wanted to get up, run like blazes out of this place, jump a train anywhere. The city noises clacked in his ears, his head. He couldn't think. Everything was wrong. There was not even any true darkness outside the window, only a church spire scummed over with green reflected from some illuminated sign. After a while, he saw a blister pearl appear from behind the spire. He lay there, scratching, looking at it dully for several minutes before he recognised it as the moon. His scratching became frantic, and he lit a match to see what was biting him. The whole wall was hung with tiny black berries. As he gaped, they broke their ranks and vanished.

A page later:

In the morning, both [Jackie] and Jerry were marked all over with swollen welts; their shirts were speckled with blood exuded by the glutted bugs. The musky smell of the insects was in the air.