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Thea Astley, Hunting the wild pineapple (Review)

December 27, 2012

Thea Astley‘s “Hunting the wild pineapple” is both a short story and the title of a collection of connected short stories (that includes, of course, the title story). Today I am going to write on the short story as it’s one of the 16 included in the current Meanjin Tournament of Books – and it has made it through to the second round.

“Hunting the wild pineapple” is the third story of eight, which are all narrated by a man called Leverson. It is set in far North Queensland in a place called Mango, which she writes about again in her 1987 novel, It’s raining in Mango. In this story, Leverson, accompanied by the American Mrs Crystal Bellamy who is “impossibly researching the human geography of the north for a nonsense thesis”, is visiting a pineapple farmer called Pasmore. Pasmore, while waiting for a lobster to thaw for dinner, takes his guests on a somewhat alcohol-fuelled car-ride, first to hunt for wild pineapples and then to visit his two migrant farm workers, “the two”.

It is pretty vintage Astley, at least mid-career Astley as I know her, with its lush, evocative, “imagistic” (as she once described it) language and its focus on inequitable human relationships in which one group, usually white men, wield power over another – women, migrants, and (though not in this particular story) indigenous people.

The story is set in the 1970s, and is characterised by satire and irony. Leverson describes Pasmore as

a well-intentioned buddy who wanted to prove we’re not all grubbing away at soil up here, that we’re smooth, polished, and have swung quite nicely, ta ever so, into the sophisticated seventies.

So smooth that outside the house we are left gawking at a whopping heart-shaped swimming-pool filled with blue tears that blinked as a woman (his wife?) plunged from sight.

See what I mean about the language? It’s packed with images and ideas that rub somewhat uncomfortably against each other. In Astley, discomforting language is de rigueur; it, more than plot or characterisation, is the tool she uses to unsettle us, to shock us out of our comfort zone and force us to confront the unkindness, the viciousness, if not the downright violence that she sees lurking beneath the surface of human interactions. (I admit now that I don’t always get it on a rational level, but it rarely fails to move me.) In this story, the relationships she spears with her pineapples are those between husband and wife (Mr Pasmore and Tubs), employer and worker (Mr Pasmore and migrant workers, Tom and Georgy), and even between colleagues (Tom and Georgy).

And yet, it’s Astley’s language that has got her most into trouble, because it is heavily imagistic (not at all spare, until perhaps her very last works which were a little sparer, comparatively speaking) and some readers and critics don’t like it. Here, for example, is Leverson on Pasmore presenting his hunted down, “huge humped” pineapple to Mrs Bellamy:

… he tattooed her arms with spikes; the head spears stabbed her skin. He lit, post-coitally I think nastily, a cigarette.

Not very subtle, eh, but effective in its hints of sex, power and violence. Similarly, here is Pasmore knocking on the door of “the two”, he

drummed a neat riff on the wall beside the open front door, the over-familiar, paternalistic-presumptuous tat-a-tat, tat-tat, and emitted hearty cries of boss-lure …

Writer and critic Kerryn Goldsworthy, like me, likes Astley. She says*:

I love Thea Astley’s writing and always have. I love its densely woven grammar, its ingrained humour, its uncompromising politics, its demented metaphors, and its undimmed outrage at human folly, stupidity and greed. I love the way that even at its most savage and despairing, it has always had a suggestion of redemptive energy working away somewhere in the plot, no matter how subterranean, outmaneuvered or comprehensively beaten down….

This story is a good example of the Astley that Goldsworthy and I like. There’s a savage bite to it, but there’s also the slightest hint of the opposite. I wonder how far it will get in Meanjin’s tournament.

Thea Astley
“Hunting the wild pineapple”
in Hunting the wild pineapple and other related stories
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 63-76
175pp.
ISBN: 9780140058437

* from “Undimmed Outrage”, Australian Book Review, Sept 1999, Issue no 214.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2012 2:09 am

    Gummie: I’ve really enjoyed a couple of Astley so this one goes on the list. The post coital ciggie got my attention (and a laugh).

    • December 28, 2012 8:44 am

      I’m glad I chose it then as an example, Guy! You can get this on Kindle but more expensive than a pb. Fortunately I managed to track down my copy! I think the costing on it was a bit rich!

      Every time I pick up Astley, I want to read more … She’s never boring!

  2. December 28, 2012 9:13 am

    I love Astley, and I have lots of her books on my TBR, all scrounged from Op Shops for a song. Remember when the ABC did A Descant for Gossips? Even the title was brilliant.

    • December 28, 2012 3:21 pm

      Oh yes, her titles are great I agree Lisa — It’s raining in Mango, Mulitple effects of rain shadow, The kindness cup, An item from the late news, etc. They are all intriguing I think.

  3. December 28, 2012 12:31 pm

    This sounds fascinating. I think, no matter the overall response of “renowned critics”, it is never a bad thing to have another writer in this world who wields words so powerfully.

    • December 28, 2012 3:22 pm

      You are absolutely right … I have no idea how she did it (but you probably would!)

  4. January 1, 2013 5:37 am

    “In Astley, discomforting language is de rigueur; it, more than plot or characterisation, is the tool she uses to unsettle us, to shock us out of our comfort zone and force us to confront the unkindness …”

    This is where her way of writing doesn’t meet my way of reading. I come across a piece of that discomforting language, I pause, I reflect, “She is telling me that she believes these people are fundamentally disquieted to tears and that this nice swimming pool is only a surface pleasure — they don’t recognise their own unhappiness — plus his marriage is miserable” — or whatever fits — and then I’m not confronting unkindness, I’m confronting language. Next step from that: I’m confronting the author, because she’s the one using the language. Only after I’ve confronted the language and the author would I come anywhere near confronting any kind of real-fictional-life-imagined event: the false consciousness of real men in Queensland. “Here’s misery,” says Astley, and then she doesn’t let me get near it. “No touching. Have some imagery instead.” If that was what she wanted to do, if she wanted to say, “We humans are not impressed by these sufferings because they are hidden behind a barrier of words and mental edifices, for example, this sentence I’ve just written about this blinking pool,” then fine, but it doesn’t seem to be what she wants to do.

    • January 1, 2013 8:08 am

      Ah DKS, I think you react to Astley the way Helen Garner does – or did once and probably still does. I find the imagery and the often discordant rhythms do work for me .. I find her work quite gut-wrenching. The other quote regarding the pineapple being “given” to Mrs Bellamy made me feel the underlying violence/misogyny in a different way but just as effectively as I’m currently feeling in Patrick White’s Happy Valley. But, your comment here helps me understand why others don’t like her way of writing … I understand what you are saying even if that’s not how it works for me (most of the time).

      • January 3, 2013 11:33 am

        Where did Garner talk about her? Now that you’ve mentioned Astley I keep comparing my reaction to her shocking descriptions (stabbed woman, blinking pool) to the way I react to Georg Trakl, who doesn’t seem to want his own shocking or startling language (sweet corpse, etc) to describe anything real. I don’t believe the reader is supposed to imagine a genuine corpse lying in front of them and somehow being adorable. The point is that the associations around the word “corpse” have been brought up against the associations around the word “sweet.” That’s closer to the way I think when I’m reading. (I can see how Astley is supposed to work, and I can see her working with you, and with others, but in me she hits a wall.)

        • January 3, 2013 1:37 pm

          The Garner quote was actually quoted by Astley herself in an interview with Candida Baker in Baker’s book Yacker: Australian writers talk about their work. Unfortunately I don’t have it but I borrowed it from the library when I did major work on the Thea Astley Wikipedia page a few years ago.

          You are right of course that these images work by pitting associations against each other that shock and jar. That usually works for me but it’s risky writing and can sometimes not work – which is why I admitted that I don’t always get it. For some reason I don’t mind. I love her heart, I love her drive, I love what I sense is her fearlessness (I suppose because I’m not very fearless!)

          Have you read Drylands? I’d like to read it again, but I think in her later works she’s a little more restrained which I may make it easier to get through the wall to the emotional content (if I understand what you feel about her writing correctly).

  5. January 4, 2013 4:39 am

    I haven’t read Drylands. I’ll give it a shot if I can find it. It’s not so much that I want the emotional content for my own sake — it’s more that I think — I deduce, I imagine, or I-whatever — that when she writes about a woman being harmed with the spiky misogynist pineapple she’d like me to feel indignant or sad on behalf of women in the real world who’re being hurt like that. There’s a gap between the way I react (crashing imagery, and then stopping and working out what the author would like me to think) and the way I believe she’d like me to react (crashing imagery, instant urgent reaction, thinks of damaged people in the real world, feels angry about real-world oppression, shock of image becomes shock of anger, indignation, I vow to watch out for misogyny like that in future). I don’t make that immediate leap from the attack-between-words to the attack-between-real-people. I stop and go over it, and by the time I reckon I’ve worked out what I think she’d like to say, my chance for indignation has gone cold.

    • January 4, 2013 8:43 am

      I think I understood that’s what you want … But thanks for writing it out in full. I think that’s a fair comment. I quite enjoy the working out, but then sometimes I just let the words wash over me and feel from the tone and clash of words what she is trying to say without actually analysing it. The analysis, too much of it, can I agree take you away from the original sensation and intention. If that all makes sense!

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