Monday musings on Australian literature: Confronting Australian novels
Recently I wrote a post about reading difficult novels and proposed categories for different sorts of “difficulties”. One of those categories was “emotionally confronting”, but I realise now that a better category would have been “emotionally and/or intellectually confronting”. By intellectually confronting I don’t mean challenging in terms of style, language, structure, but in terms of ideas. Many books which confront us with difficult ideas can, of course, evoke an emotional response in us, but I didn’t explore that in my original post. However, having just read Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review) I now plan to.
An intellectually confronting book is, I’d say, one that shocks us out of our complacency. This is what Christos Tsiolkas wants to do. In a conversation with Heather Taylor Johnson in Meanjin‘s Canberra issue, he expressed his concern that:
We are reading for confirmation of ourselves rather than to challenge ourselves and I think that is a real danger.
And said, in response to a question regarding mixed reactions to The slap, that
I want to pose questions that are unsettling or troubling.
He certainly does that. I’d love to hear what you think about novels that confront you – that unsettle your mind, shake your world view, disturb your core. Meanwhile, I’m going talk about some of the authors whose novels have surprised or challenged me over the last 2-3 decades.
Thea Astley could hardly, I think, be said to write to confirm ourselves. Her books face head on the ugliness in our culture – between white and black, rich and poor, city and country. The first book of hers that I read, the ironically titled A kindness cup, deals with racism and violence in a country town. The multiple effects of rain shadow (my review) explores the impact on a group of people of a violent episode on Palm Island. Interestingly, given my recent post on the subject, one of the voices telling the story is indigenous. Drylands is concerned with the impoverishment of the spirit as she sees it in late 20th century Australia. I wonder what she’d think now! One of her characters in The multiple effects of rainshadow says:
There must be a million readers out there who crave boredom! Who love the dangling participle! Who wallow in truisms and fatuous theorisings! … Slap in your popular aphorisms, buddy, but don’t make ‘em think!
Helen Garner has to be one of our bravest writers. Her nonfiction books, The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation, and her novel, The spare room, in particular, demonstrate her willingness to explore ideas that may be unpalatable, that run against the status quo. Somehow, she’s managed to confront the resultant criticism – which she’s faced since her first critically acclaimed but also slammed first novel, Monkey grip – and keep on going. I’ve said it before – and will probably say it again – I don’t always agree with Garner, but I like that she confronts us with ideas that we need to think about in our dealings with others. Whether you agree with her take on the Ormond College sexual harassment case or whether you relate to her frustration with her terminally-illl friend, you have to admit that she doesn’t let us get away with “soft” thinking.
Elizabeth Jolley unsettled readers from the beginning with her willingness to expose the soul’s darkness in ordinary people and to have them enact that darkness in often shocking ways. It was Weekly’s ruthless action at the end of The newspaper of Claremont Street, the second or third Jolley book I read, that sold me. Really! I soon learnt not to be surprised by anything her characters thought or did. Jolley is more about the interior, the psyche, than the other writers I’m mentioning here but she’s no less confronting to our comfort.
Andrew McGahan‘s first two novels Praise and 1988 are examples of Grunge Lit or Generation X literature. I found them, particularly Praise, confronting because of the nihilism, hopelessness of the characters. They have no goals, they immerse themselves in sex, drugs and alcohol rather than “honest work”. According to Wikipedia, Grunge Lit, a term not necessarily accepted by those it’s been applied to, did not last long. But, in these two books, McGahan did present Australian readers with something that made us sit up and take note – not just for the writing, but for the unappealing lifestyles he presented.
Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance (my review) is an historical novel, so we could perhaps tell ourselves that things are different now, but any honest reader would realise that Bobby’s statement in the novel that -
We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours
- continues to have ramifications today, and that, in fact, we are still not very good at hearing their story. Scott is just one of several contemporary indigenous writers, such as Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and Jeanine Leane, who are starting to confront us with their story, with their perspective of what living in Australia today is like for those who have been disenfranchised.
Christos Tsiolkas needs little introduction if you’ve been reading my recent posts. He has been shocking readers pretty much since his first novel, Loaded, which I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read. I did, though, hear about it! His books are firmly urban/suburban and tend to be set within immigrant subcultures. As far as I understand, most if not all traverse similar subject matter, the cultural conflict, social mobility, sexual identity confusion, racism, that often lead to aggression if not actual violence. His language is raw, and unapologetic, but his characters are real. You may not like them all, you may feel you aren’t like them or that you don’t know people like them, but they seem to be part of contemporary Australia, an Australia in which ridicule of and violence against people who are different seems to be getting worse. At least, I fear it’s not getting better. Tsiolkas wants us to think about this, to not sit in our comfortable middle-class suburban homes and worry about nothing more than our generally self-serving concerns.
Australian feminist, Anne Summers, said in a lecture that “I found [Helen Garner's] The First Stone to be brave and honest and quite confronting–the hallmarks of a very good book.” I think she’s right. There’s nothing wrong with reading books that reflect ourselves and explore our concerns, but surely our reading has the most value when we are shaken out of the familiar and made to face other worlds and different ideas.
Now, over to you …