A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

I posted this review of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists in 2015, my first year as a blogger. I had the sense to link to both Sue/WG’s and Lisa/ANZLL’s reviews, so that made two comments and Jane, then a fellow blogger, made three.

Jane Rawson has written a couple of quirky novellas since, though I think that Formaldehyde (2015) got very little attention. A shame, as it is very funny. Her latest, A History of Dreams has apparently hit the shelves already, though not at Crow Books in Perth where I am still waiting for my order to be filled. A review will follow as soon as I have a copy in my hands.

The reason for this repost is that once again I find myself too busy to write. But Milly has finished moving, and in fact has already sold her old house, accepting an offer the first day it was shown. So that’s the end of that distraction. I’ve caught up with at least some of my bookkeeping; and though I’m still doing one trip a week to make up for the time I took off in March/April I’m hoping that by filling a space with this re-posting I can have my North America read for May, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, written up later this week


Among my many uni first years I luckily included a year of Philosophy which, for me at least, provides a way into understanding this wonderful first novel. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) sets out as pure near-future dystopian SF and morphs into something much more interesting and original.

Rawson makes clear from the beginning that our heroine, Caddy, is in a state of despair at the loss of her home “down by the dirty river, their neighbours a cluster of gigantic, carefully-lettered oil holding tanks”, her cat and her husband Harry. One day when Caddy has ridden her bike into town, a fire breaks out near the tanks, the power supply and therefore the water pressure fail and “[s]he felt the whole earth shake when the tanks went up. She thought it was a terrorist bomb down at the train station, though there’d been nothing like that since 2014.” Caddy heads back towards the fire, “Harry would need her” but “[t]he trees were on fire along the edge of Footscray Road, and by the time she had reached within a kilometre of home there was nothing but black”.

And so, in a couple of pages we are located in time, the near future, in space, the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and in atmosphere, a time of failing infrastructure, of rising temperatures, and of a growing and displaced underclass.

Caddy lives in a humpy on the banks of the river near Newmarket – and it is one of the joys of reading a novel set in your own home town that the locations are so easy to visualise – supporting herself through prostitution and small scale bartering. There is only a small central cast, all friends of, or at least with Caddy, Ray who buys and sells stuff including his friends, Jason, a street kid, Peira who runs an inner city bar, Lanh, an internet entrepreneur, and Sergeant Fisk from the UN relief force (ie. Melbourne is a place which needs help). Caddy moves through the underside of the city, buying and selling and being sold, becomes ill, finds that the river has flooded and washed away her humpy, and is assisted by Fisk, to whom she finds she is strangely attracted.

Meanwhile Ray buys some heavily creased maps and finds that he is able to fall through the creases into other places, in space and eventually, in time, initially places on opposite folds of the map but increasingly a no-place which he learns is called Suspended Imaginums, the place our imaginings go when we stop thinking about them. There is a reference at this point to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I’m thinking oh no, not more post modern magic bullshit but Rawson is cleverer than that.

Ray takes that wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, within Suspended Imaginums, and finds himself in San Francisco, in 1997, and there bumps into two characters, Sarah and Simon, whose story we have been following in a sidebar so to speak. They have accepted the task of seeing the whole of the USA by dividing it into 25 foot squares and standing in each and every one, which turns out to be the same as a story imagined and partially written by Caddy. And this is where the philosophy cuts in.

Way back in 1971 my course, under the great Max Charlesworth, included Bishop Berkely (1685-1783) who posited that there is no way to confirm that the material world exists and that therefore we may well all be thoughts in the mind of God. I liked this but not being a god-botherer thought (and think) that it is more likely that the thoughts are in my mind, not God’s. A modern version of Berkely’s “immaterialism” is put forward by Nick Bostrom (1973- ) who shows that with computing power expanding exponentially, it is inevitable that at least one society, and maybe that one is ours, will exist as a simulation running on computers.

Hence, in my reading, Rawson implies a universe which depends entirely on Caddy’s imagination, an entirely believable universe but one in which perhaps the postulates, the underpinnings of the simulation, haven’t been fixed as well as they should be and ‘normality’ has begun to fray.

One last thing, don’t be misled by the prize for SF writing. I have read SF incessantly since those long ago uni days and, on the evidence of this book, Rawson is one of those writers like my favourite Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, who write on the edge of what is possible in ‘mainstream’ fiction. Unmade Lists is not Fantasy, is not Space Opera, is definitely not genre fiction. Read it and see.

 

Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013

See also: reviews by Whispering Gums (here) and ANZ Lit Lovers (here).

Those Who Perish, Emma Viskic

Back in the 1950s, which sometimes still feels like yesterday, ‘people’ would complain, about Doris Day movies, that breaking into song at critical moments was ‘unrealistic’. It took me a long time to understand that musical theatre was an art form with particular rules into which the story was made to fit, and longer to realise that all modes of story telling have rules which of course skillful story tellers modify as they go along.

What brought this to mind today was the extraordinary, “unrealistic” – for ‘real’ life, not for thrillers – number of violent deaths which deaf PI Caleb Zelic has to deal with over the course of this novel. I’m sure action thrillers are also an art form, but killing for art’s sake is not a concept that turns me on.

Nevertheless, except for one sequence which seemed to me was going to be all ‘action’, I listened all the way through to the end and in places even experienced mild enjoyment. One of the great improvements in crime fiction over time has been the increased emphasis on character development, and that is the case here.

Caleb Zelic lives in Melbourne but his Indigenous wife comes from a fictional Victorian coastal town, three and a half hours away, population 3,000, with a small, habitable island nearby. Let’s deal with the geography first (non-Victorians can skip the next para.)

The town is probably based on a mix of Port Fairy and Warrnambool: the distance is right; there’s a fishing fleet; Port Fairy is about that size; Warrnambool is bigger but the Framlingham Mission – a ‘miss.’ is mentioned – is nearby; and so on. Neither has an island, though the uninhabited Lady Julia Percy Is. is down the coast from Port Fairy; and the ferry which plays a central part in the story is clearly based on the cable drawn ferries over the Murray River that would sink if ever put to sea.

The next issue to get out of the way is cultural appropriation. WG, I’m sure, would applaud Viskic for using Aboriginal characters – Zelic’s wife, Kat, his mother in law, Mick, his friend and neighbour – in important roles in the story. For once I tend to side with her, though I think Viskic goes a little too far in describing Kat’s eagle totem, the cultural significance of mutton birds, stuff like that.

The other ‘cultural’ idea which slides along is the significant Yugoslav community in Australia. Viskic herself has a ‘Dalmatian’ father (Wiki). Zelic’s father’s ancestry is unstated and his sternness, the failure to acknowledge/express feelings isn’t restricted to (former) Yugoslavs.

Melanie, meanwhile is going “deaf PI, deaf PI, how does that work?” I can only imagine Viskic has a deaf (indeed a Deaf) family member. Caleb had meningitis at 5 years which destroyed his hearing. Despite the opposition of his father, he was taught Auslan and attended Deaf school, and is a member of the Deaf community in Melbourne. He insists on meeting hearing friends and informants in a Deaf community cafe, convincingly described.

His brother and his wife are both fluent in Auslan, but he deals with others, and of course his job involves a great deal of listening, by lip-reading with the aid of hearing aids which inflict on him high levels of tinnitus. His deafness is an element in nearly every interaction in the novel, and is very well done.

So, on to Those Who Perish (2022), the fourth in a series – don’t genre novels always hunt in series – featuring Caleb Zelic and his (recovering) drug addict brother Anton.

Kat, an artist, is living with her parents in ____ Bay, which is also the town Caleb and Anton grew up in, surrounded by family, while she sees out the last 8 weeks or so of her pregnancy.

Anton is in a rehabilitation clinic on the island. At the beginning of the novel Caleb has received an anonymous text stating that his brother is in danger and has rushed to the Bay where he discovers his brother pinned down by a sniper on the beach. He rescues him by crashing a tip truck, conveniently parked nearby with the keys in the ignition, into the toilet block in which the sniper is concealed.

A dead man is fished from the sea, shot through the forehead. He turns out to be another patient from the rehab. facility. Caleb spends the next few weeks mostly on the island, thinking up reasons why he shouldn’t tell the police what’s going on, as more people are shot, including the local policeman; surviving (by the skin of his teeth, of course) numerous attempts on his own life; and also thinking up new ways to piss off his wife who clearly loves him, while fighting off the temptations of the island’s token blonde beauty of loose virtue.

There’s also a totally irrelevant subplot about Caleb being asked to solve the mystery of who is publishing incriminating photos of members of the local football team; which leads him to having a long discussion, for no logical reason, with his doctor mother in law about bent dicks. And no, the comic subplot doesn’t merge with the serious murder plot in the last chapter, as you might expect, but is ‘solved’ in an unnecessary epilogue.

I don’t review crime fiction often but I listen to far too many. This one was at least Australian, though the Victorian element was not up there with, say Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. The characters were interesting; Caleb’s inability to not be jealous of Kat’s handsome, Indigenous, smooooth workmate was totally believable; the crime plot was maybe 6 out of 10 (the comic subplot was 3/10). Add it to your list Melanie, I’d be interested to hear what you say about Viskic’s treatment of deafness.

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Emma Viskic, Those Who Perish, 2022 (Book might not be out yet), read by Lewis Fitz-Gerald

Melanie/Grab the Lapels doesn’t (yet) have a heading for Deaf.Lit but here is her latest review: Deaf & Sober by Betty G Miller

The Red Witch, Nathan Hobby

Back in 2015, when MST told me she had started a blog, Adventures in Biography, I started following the people she was following – Whispering Gums, ANZLitLovers, Nathan Hobby (then A Biographer in Perth), The Resident Judge, Stumbling through the Past, Historians are Past Caring (Marion Diamond and my favourite blog name ever). They were kind enough to follow me when I started blogging and soon, mostly of course through WG and ANZLL, I had met all of you.

It has been a great privilege to follow the progress of Michelle (MST) and Nathan as their books, first Michelle’s and now Nathan’s, in 2015 only a gleam in their eyes, have made it through to publication.

Before I link to my review on the AWWC site, I want to update you on my ongoing interest in Prichard’s trip to Turee Creek in 1926 to gather the material for the novel Coonardoo, which I first wrote about in one of my earliest posts Ventured North by Train and Truck (1 Jul, 2015).

From The Red Witch I get that KSP’s husband, Hugo Throssell, had worked on neighbouring station Ashburton, in the Peak Hill region, before WWI. And it was the Ashburton Road, past Peak Hill that I travelled last week, taking me to within about 50 km of Turee Creek. Nathan writes, “Joe Maguiure [Turee’s owner] described the location of Turee in a letter to a British newspaper: ‘We are just 198 miles from Peak Hill, our nearest post office. Our nearest neighbour is 80 miles away, our nearest railway 267, and nearest port 300 miles …'”

I can only imagine Maguire was prone to exaggeration. And that Prichard was mistaken when she wrote (and her son Ric later repeated) that she “travelled four hundred miles beyond the end of the railway” (Meekatharra according to Ric, who was at the time aged 4) in the station’s T-model Ford Truck to reach Turee Creek.

The distance from Meekatharra to Turee is near enough 320 km (200 miles). Peak Hill is roughly half way, so 100 miles. The nearest ports, Carnarvon or Onslow (KSP went home via Onslow), might be “300 miles”, they’re about 400 km/250 miles as the crow flies.

I was hoping Nathan would find something to clear up this little obsession of mine, but sadly, not.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

A comprehensive literary biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) is long overdue. We, Nathan’s fellow bloggers, have waited long years through his PhD, fatherhood, being taken up by Melbourne University Press, and finally a year’s delay due to ‘Covid’, for this month to arrive. We have learnt a lot about Prichard in the meanwhile, but that doesn’t compare with finally seeing the book in the hands of readers. Read on …

Shikasta, Doris Lessing

Shikasta’s full title is “Re Planet 5, Shikasta, Personal psychological historical documents relating to the visit by Johor (George Sherban), Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days”.

Shikasta is Earth, which for eons was bathed in goodness by the system known as Canopus, but the forces of Shammat (Satan) became ascendant and Shikasta descended into squalor and misery, which Johor, who is immortal, as we were once also, witnesses and reports back on until the Last Days, World War III.

Let me be clear at the outset, that yes, this is a very Old Testament view of the world, but it is not religious in the way that CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is for instance.

That said, Lessing has dead people lining up in Zone 6 (Purgatory?) to return to the land of the living. Johor himself passes backwards and forwards through Zone 6 to go home to/return from Canopus; the last time not as himself, but choosing to be reborn as George Sherban, who grows to become something approaching the new Messiah at the End of Days.

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is one of the greats. I have loved everything of hers that I have read. The big question is how much of it have I understood? Wikipedia says that her fiction “is commonly divided into three distinct phases”: Communist (1944-56), Psychological (1956-69) and Sufism (1970s). I have no way of knowing if this is correct. In any case, Lessing continued writing up till 2007 (when she was 88).

Shikasta (1979) marks a change in her output to encompass Science Fiction, a step which as you can imagine put a lot of literary noses out of joint. It is a dense work and very difficult to read – maybe I should have first read the Short Introduction to Sufism – and yet I also found it difficult to put down.

The text mainly takes the form of reports back to Canopus of the decline in the ‘natives’ (us) over eons. But the ‘agents’, mostly Johor, tell stories with enough detail and personality in them to hold our interest.

One envoy describes Noah’s flood: “Well before the inundation the Davidic tribe was on safe ground … in the area that is the subject of this report, the rain continued for nearly two months… It was necessary to make a ‘pact’ with them that this visitation of the Gods would not occur again.” And then his next report begins –

Since my last visit, twenty-one cities have been established in the old flood areas… Trade flourishes between the cities and as far as the eastern areas of the main landmass, its Northwest fringes, the northern parts of Southern Continent 1, the isolated Northern Continent.

It helps to have a map or a globe – for most of the novel you have to make your own connections between the ‘reports’ and the world as we know it. So, the ‘Northwest fringes’ is Europe, Southern Continent 1 is Africa (I don’t think Australia is ever mentioned) and the ‘isolated Northern Continent’ is North America.

The first third of the novel describes our decline – from the idyllic, at one with nature to grubby, desperate townspeople – and the increasing influence of Shammat, in mostly general terms. The next third is vignettes of people, Individuals One through Eight, in the aftermath of WWII. Some become terrorists or criminals. Eight is a servant girl, abandoned by the family to whom she had given herself.

Such a female, often to the detriment of her own children, whom she may even have to abandon, may be the prop, the stay, the support, the nourishment of an entire family, and perhaps for all her life. For her working life, for such a servant may be turned out in old age without any more than what she came with. Yet she may have been the bond that held the family together.

Which reflects, I think, Lessing’s upbringing in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

The last third is easier reading, the story of George Sherban, Johor reborn, told mostly by his sister, as he grows and is educated through childhood, to become leader of the world’s young people – as the Chinese become the master race – culminating in the trial of the White Race for their crimes against the Dark Races, before hundreds of delegates in an ancient ampitheatre in Greece

All of the second night’s session was taken up by representatives from South America, young men and women from the Indian tribes. Thirty of them. Several were wasted with disease…

The indictment was even more powerful than that of the Indian from the United States, because the events described were more recent. Some of the victims stood before us . . .

The incursion of Europe into South America. The conquest of brilliant civilizations through rapacity, greed, guile, trickery. The savagery of Christianity. The subjection of the Indians. The introduction of Black people from Africa, the slave trade.

This is an astonishing work, a largely successful attempt by a great writer to create an allegory of the whole of human history in one novel. Subsequently expanded to the five books of the Canopus in Argos series.

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Doris Lessing, Shikasta, first pub. Jonathan Cape, London, 1979 (My edition, pictured, HarperCollins, 2002). 448pp.

Going Round in Circles

Journal: 086

Trucking is always ‘going round in circles’ for the simple reason that you like to get home occasionally, though I suppose if you didn’t mind ‘boring’ you could just go out and back. The other reason for ‘going round in circles’ is that I keep thinking I’m getting on top of my blog reading and writing, and then I’m not.

The road above, 180 kms of (well maintained) dirt is emblematic of both. It is the road to a mine I was sent to after being sent mistakenly to another mine in a completely different direction 600 kms away; and it is the, or very close to the, route – there wouldn’t have been a road back then, just wheel tracks – taken by Katherine Susannah Prichard when she went to Turee Creek station, where she wrote Coonardoo.

I’ve written about this a few times. I’m always conscious of the books I’ve read which populate the roads I travel. This trip just past, I loaded at a mine on the coast north of Geraldton (let’s reference Lisa’s recent review of The Islands) came back to Geraldton (The Fringe Dwellers, The Merry Go-Round by the Sea) and headed west through Mullewa (False Claims of Colonial Thieves), following the now defunct Northern rail line (May Holman) through Mt Magnet, Sandstone (I could reference Daisy Bates all through here) to Leinster, 900 kms and a day later, where I was asked ‘Why are you there?’ (“Because you sent me written directions.”), and was redirected to a new mine, of which I had never heard, 260kms mostly dirt road north west of Meekatharra, itself 450 kms away and a third of that dirt (map).

Northern Line east of Mullewa

KSP wrote “I travelled four hundred miles beyond the end of the railway” and her son, Ric Throssell, added in his biography that by ‘end of the railway’ she meant Meekatharra, where the Northern line turns east to Wiluna (Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence). But as I have written, and discussed with Nathan Hobby, 400 miles takes you way beyond Turee Creek, 150 kms beyond present day Newman. I wonder if she actually took the train to Mullewa – there is a line north from Northam, outside Perth, and her husband’s home town – and was met by a truck from Turee Creek there. But that’s another story.

Assuming she trained to Meekatharra and went the last 300 km/200 miles from there by truck then the route they would have followed, the Ashburton Road, is the one I took to Abra Mine, about 50 kms south of Turee Creek.

To close that particular circle, I am currently reading Nathan’s new biography of KSP and am scheduled to have it read and written up by 6.00 am AEST next Wednesday. And tomorrow I have another trip.

It took me three hours, out of phone range the whole time, to follow that dirt road to Abra all the while wondering if there was a turnoff I had missed and when I came over the last rise and could hear chatter on the CB you can imagine my relief. Before I move on, wild camels are relatively common in the outback but you don’t often see them. I had to pull up while these three got themselves off the road.

For much of the trip I listened to State of Terror by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny. Penny is apparently a well known Canadian author of crime fiction set in Quebec. State of Terror is a mediocre thriller notable only for what it says about Clinton – that she as Secretary of State was a mixture of Wonder Woman and an Enid Blyton heroine (ie. no adults get in the way of solving the crime); that immediate past President Eric Dumb, sorry Dunn, was a Russian asset; that the US has moved so far to the right that left-over elements of the Dunn administration would be willing to set off a nuclear warhead in the White House; that the Russian Mafia was founded and is still headed by the Russian President, and so on.

AWWC April 2022

DateContributorTitle
Fri 01ELMarie Pitt, Aust Women Poets and “sex-prejudice”
Wed 06Elizabeth LhuedeFinding Forgotten Authors: the case of “Eucalypta”
Fri 08ELMrs H E Russell, “Womanhood Suffrage”
Wed 13Bill HollowayMiles Franklin, My Career Goes Bung (review)
Fri 15ELMiles Franklin, Australian Writers Need Courage
Wed 20Nathan HobbyKatharine Susannah Prichard
Fri 22ELKatharine Susannah Prichard, Working Women of Note 1
Wed 27Whispering GumsLouisa Atkinson Pioneer Woman Journalist
Fri 29ELLouisa Atkinson, The Kurrajong Waterfalls

All the Friday posts are stories, or extracts from stories, written by the authors mentioned.

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Recent audiobooks 

Christos Tsiolkas (M, Aus/Vic), Barracuda (2013)
Marina J Lostetter (F, USA), Activation Degradation (2021) – SF
Louise Erdrich (F, USA), The Plague of Doves (2008)
Abigail Wilson (F, USA), Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey (2020) – Regency Romance
Ian Rankin (M, Sco), Exit Music (2007) – Crime
John Banville (M, Ire), Snow (2005) – Crime/Hist.Fic.
Hilary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny (F, Can), State of Terror (2021) – Crime
Henning Mankell (M, Swe), Before the Frost (2002) – Crime
Terry Pratchett (M, Eng), Hogfather (1998) – SF/Fantasy

Currently Reading:

Doris Lessing (F, Eng), Shikasta (1981) – SF (Still! But I’m at the end)
Ada Cambridge (F, Aus/Vic), A Mere Chance (1882)
Nathan Hobby (M, Aus/WA), The Red Witch (2022)

The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

North America Project 2022

This is an area in which I am a novice, so we’ll start at the beginning. Louise Erdrich (1954 -) “is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians [known as Métis in Canada], a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa)” from North Dakota (map)(Wiki).

The Métis are of mixed Indigenous and French (‘Voyageur’) ancestry, becoming a distinct group by the mid-19th century, during the fur trade era. I touched on this during my review of RM Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders, which is set in the 1840s in the Canadian states over the border from North Dakota.

Erdrich is of course a successful and well-known author, who has written 18 or so novels, seemingly all set in one or two fictional North Dakota Indigenous communities. The Plague of Doves (2008) is the first of three in the ‘Justice trilogy’ – the other two are The Round House (2012) and LaRose (2016).

Let’s get ‘the plague of doves’ out of the way. The novel consists of a series of stories over the space of a hundred or so years, told by four present-day narrators. So we begin with Evelina, the central character, telling her 100 year old grandfather, Mooshum’s story of when he was an altar boy for his Catholic priest step-brother. The town was blanketed in doves which ate everything and which the townspeople would trap, shoot, eat until they were sick of them.

The doves of this legend are Passenger Pigeons “which migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 billion, and possibly up to 5 billion.” They are now extinct.

Mooshum then 12 or 13, runs off with his best friend, a girl, into the badlands, where they find a protector and after some years marry and return home. When the novel begins Mooshum is a widower living with Evelina’s family and Evelina is a teenager.

The stories which Mooshum, and his brother, Shamengwa, tell Evelina and Evelina’s ‘present-day’ story all slowly reveal connections, this is after all a relatively small community. So Evelina’s ‘boyfriend’ in primary school is Corwin Peace, who fades in and out of the narrative as Evelina becomes an adult, but for instance he is saved from juvenile delinquency by Shamengwa who teaches him to play the violin (and the violin has its own, complicated story).

The story around which all other stories revolve occurred when Mooshum was young. A white farming family is slaughtered. Mooshum and some friends are first on the scene a couple of days later. They discover a baby has survived and they give it some milk. Elements in the white community get up a lynching party and three men/boys with Moochum are hanged but he is spared.

Evelina then has to deal with the fact that her favourite teacher at the convent school is the niece of two men in the lynching party.

The second narrator, the Judge, first tells the story of the founding of the town, Pluto, which is on land illegally carved out of an Indian reservation; and then his story begins to run into Evelina’s as he and Evelina’s aunt become lovers and then husband and wife.

The third narrator, Marn Wolde’s story appears disconnected for a while. She runs off from home with a preacher, Billy Peace and they build up a following elsewhere. But eventually they are back in Pluto, and Billy establishes his congregation on her family land. When that relationship comes to a bloody end we find Marn and Evelina working in the same diner.

I probably have some of this out of order, as I no longer have access to the book which I listened to first on the way over to Melbourne and then again on the way home (and loved it both times).

The fourth and final narrator is Dr. Cordelia Lochren, who it turns out is the baby who survived the massacre. Though somewhere in there, Evelina gets at least one more go as she drops out of college, begins working in the state mental institution, where she has a breakdown and becomes a voluntary inmate. Until Corwin comes to visit her and they walk out together.

I was happiest with The Plague of Doves as Evelina’s coming of age, some of the other stuff I found distracting. But Erdrich obviously intends it to be more. Many readers seem to see the murder and lynching as central – that the main story is of how 80 years later a whole community still revolves around the family killed, the lynchers and the lynched.

What strikes me most is what a middle-class book this is. These are college educated towns people, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors. This is not a bad thing, but it is a long way from the fiery, underclass fiction of Marie Munkara say. But as in Munkara, there is a simmering sense of underlying injustice, of isolation from the outside, white world; and also of the links, of parentage, of action, acknowledged and unacknowledged, between members of the community, white and Indigenous.

Erdrich’s writing doesn’t fire me up. From that point of view I much preferred last month’s Nalo Hopkinson. But she writes a complex, involving story which I really must read again, and its sequels.

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Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 2008. Harper Audio read by Kathleen McInerney, Peter Francis James. 11 hours.

Upcoming books for North America Project 2022
May: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
June: Zora Neale Thurston, Their Eyes were watching God

Anzac Day 2022

Over the years I have attempted to write an anti-war themed post each Anzac Day, inspired initially by an essay in Overland by author Jane Rawson – Don’t Mention the War – which no doubt I came across in her now seemingly discontinued blog. So these are my efforts to date –

2021 Stand Easy. Stories written by Australian soldiers in WWII
2020 The Black Line. Why don’t we celebrate Aboriginal resistance to occupation.
2019 A Day to Remember. Vietnam Moratorium Day, 1970
2018 Randolph Bourne vs The State, H.W. Morton. Anarchist anti-war theory
2017 Internee 1/5126, Robert Paterson. My family’s own WWI internee
2016 Miles Franklin’s War. Where she served and her fierce anti-war sentiments
2015 To mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. The Anzac myth

It seems that what I had in mind to write this year, an overview of the Anzac myth, I already covered in 2015. Though given that not even Melanie read it (WG, as she so often did in the early days, shepherded that particular orphan through) perhaps I should just put it up again.

At its heart is this quote from historian Marilyn Lake: “The myth of Anzac with all its imperial, masculinist and militarist baggage has yet become our creation story.”

In 1915 the Australia and New Zealand Army Corp – hence ANZAC – were with Allied (British and French) forces storming the beaches at Gallipoli, the Turkish peninsula guarding the entrance to the Black Sea. First Lord of the Admirality (ie. Secretary for the Navy) Winston Churchill conceived the assault as a second front in the war against Germany – then and for years bogged down in the trenches of France and Belgium – which would lead to the taking of the Turkish capital, Constantinople.

The Turks famously saw off the Allied forces and Churchill resigned in disgrace.

The significance for Australia was that this was our ‘blooding’, our first engagement as a nation in war. War correspondents led by CEW Bean and Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert) invented the myth of the brave, larrikin soldier which has been enthusiastically promulgated ever since, an extension of the legend of the 1890s, of the independent, ‘lone hand’, bushman.

Farcical when you consider what a suburban lot we are, and were back then; our ready submission to today’s surveillance state; our ongoing demand for strong leadership (the horror of ‘hung’ parliaments).

MST pointed this out some years ago, but what does it say about us that all our heroes are a) men and b) failures. Anzacs – lost; Burke & Wills – died of starvation while camped at an oasis; Ned Kelly – hanged; and so on.

Russel Ward, in The Australian Legend (1958), while noting that volunteers came in equal numbers from the city and the bush, puts the case for the independent, bushman soldier, quoting Bean –

The Australian, one hundred to two hundred years hence [and astonishingly, we are already one hundred years hence], will still live with the consciousness that, if he only goes far enough back over the hills and across the plains, he comes in the end to the mysterious, half-desert country where men have to live the lives of strong men.

CEW Bean, Official History of Australia in the War 0f 1914-18

and continues, citing novelists Eric Lambert and Tom Hungerford, one of the Left and one of the Right, whose works both highlight “a very strong resentment of the whole system of officers”, which Bean too had noted.

For a while it looked like Anzac Day had reached its use-by date. By the end of the 1970s America, including us, had been defeated in Vietnam, and in the streets of Washington, Melbourne, Sydney; Whitlam had modernised the 1950s welfare state; Anzac Day was on the way out. So what changed over the next couple of decades? Two things, or three maybe – returned servicemen from Vietnam were encouraged to be angry about their treatment as pariahs, and of course gained strength from a similar movement in the US, and from the leadership of returned serviceman, Liberal leader and State Premier, Jeff Kennett; the Right, thoroughly beaten in student politics, and then through all the years of the Hawke/Keating Labor government, surprisingly fought back; neo-Liberalism (Thatcherism, Reganism) became the new orthodoxy.

And it’s hard to know whether this was symptom or cause, but the threat from the far-right in the person of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation led Liberal Prime Minister John Howard to release his inner-racist and inner-jingoist and those particular genies are not going back in the bottle.

It will be interesting to see how Anzac Days progress over the next couple of decades. On the one hand our school children are receiving US-style “values” indoctrination; but on the other, Vietnam ‘vets’ are getting old and it doesn’t appear veterans of our ill-fated ventures into the Middle East are coming through to replace them.

A recent story on the ABC site, RSLs lack young veterans for Anzac Day events, says “The future of Anzac Day events is at risk due to a lack of young veterans signing up to volunteer with RSL sub-branches”. The average age of volunteers is over 55 and “most” members are in their 70s or 80s.

So, do I think this matters? Should we keep ‘celebrating’ Anzac Day after all the old soldiers are gone? No, of course not. It was designed to get people behind the war effort, and that’s its purpose still, to normalize the spending of billions by politicians on their ongoing war fantasies.

Next year, if I remember, I might review Roger McDonald’s novel of Gallipoli, 1915. Both book and tv series made an impression on me at the time, 1979, though what I remember best is the young woman drowning.


RSL Returned Serviceman’s League. Checks – Returned and Services League of Australia. Obviously the best they could managed de-gendering-wise. (Wiki)

The image at the top is, I think, of a statue at Gallipoli, representing a Turkish soldier giving aid to an Australian. Searches: Respect to Mehmetçik Monument

see also: The Resident Judge, The life and thought of an Australian pacifist Eleanor May Moore 1875-1949

Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda (2013) is not a novel about swimming, as seems to be everyone’s first impression, so much as a novel where swimming, being a swimmer, is a way in to discussing Melbourne’s secret shame – class.

However, swimming, getting to world class, takes up a fair amount of space, which is interesting as I have seen nothing to indicate Tsiolkas was a competitive swimmer. Tsiolkas (1965- ) was a student at Blackburn High (in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs) where two of my kids went (I went to Blackburn South High) and if he swam would have been a member of my old club, Nunawading and maybe have been coached by my former teammate and coach, Leigh Nugent.

In fact some of the things Tsiolkas says about swimming – ‘touching the wall’, losing track of the line on the bottom of the pool, thinking (my head did almost nothing but count laps (and complain about oxygen deprivation) when I swam) – make me wonder if he just “imagined himself” into his protagonist, Danny.

Danny is the oldest son of working class parents – Scottish-Australian interstate truck driver father and Greek-Australian mother – living in Reservoir, a northern suburb of working class Anglos and new migrants; streets of small, identical three bedroom brick and tile houses put up by the Housing Commission in the 1950s and 60s.

The guts of the novel is that, based on his swimming, he wins a scholarship to attend one of the big Private boys schools, probably based on Scotch College going by the coloured blazer and the location on the river.

The first piece of advice the Coach ever gave Danny was not about swimming, not about his strokes, not about his breathing, not about how he could improve his dive or his turns. All of that would come later. He would never forget that first piece of advice.

The squad had just finished training and Danny was standing shivering off to one side. The other guys all knew each other; they had been destined to be friends from the time they were embryos in their mothers’ wombs, when their fathers had entered their names on the list to attend Cunts College.

First week of term, February 1994

The advice? “You are not friends, you are competitors.” Don’t take shit from them. Give it back. Hurt them before they hurt you.

At school he is teased and ostracized, but over the years makes his way in to the in-crowd via his victories in swimming and his ‘psycho’ response to being provoked. Scotch is the school rich Presbyterians send their sons to. Fathers are judges, politicians, leaders in business and medicine. Mothers are society ladies, big on committees and entertaining.

Most middle Australians live in a fantasy “classless” society, unaware of the 10% above them pulling all the levers, keeping apart, speaking in mock British accents (and yes, I had one for a while, at Trinity); dismissive of ‘bogans’, tradespeople who work harder and often earn more than they do; and completely blind to the plight of the underclass of generationally welfare dependent.

Danny finds himself in a school for boys training to be bosses, whose parents are the bosses the rest of us work for, where arrogance is a given and self-doubt is rare. Of course Australians cut sporting heroes a lot of slack, and so there is a path for him to achieve acceptance.

The storyline chops about, beginning with Danny, 30ish, ex-swimmer, ex-con it turns out, in Glasgow, his relationship with his lover coming to an end; and making its way through all the episodes in his life that brought him to this point. It works well.

We see Danny, as a swimmer, quickly the best swimmer in his squad, rise through states, nationals, Pan-Pacs; we see him floundering in the social side of school life, with his mates, his mates’ mothers and sisters; a scholarship boy in the upper class suburbs of Toorak and Portsea; But more interesting are the family dynamics, his ongoing friendship with Demet, a Turkish-Australian girl from his old life, his sense of entitlement at home, his father’s resentment, his mother’s conciliating.

This is a big book, over 500 pages, and although Melbourne and class, and I guess competitive swimming are the glue which hold it together, it is the relationships which make it compelling – with Martin, at different times his biggest tormentor and best friend; with Demet; with Luke, his unlikely swottish schoolfriend; with his brother and sister; his parents of course (his father seems to get rather more days at home than the one day a week allowed most long distance drivers); with his mother’s Adelaide-based family, introduced late in the book; with his lovers.

Tsiolkas still writes with his dick too often for my taste, seems compelled to put his protagonists’ sex lives in your face, but it’s not happening all the time here, which is a relief, and for once the protagonist is anti-recreational drugs. As you might expect of me, I find it odd that he has written a coming-of-age for a protagonist who is in no way himself – no, I’m sure there’s bits of him in there – but he knows his Melbourne, someone had to write about class sooner or later, and he does it well, and of course his father is a (mostly convincing) truck driver running Melbourne – Perth, so I think I liked it.

.

Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013. 513pp

see also other Tsiolkas posts:
Australian Grunge (here)
Merciless Gods (here)
The Slap (here)
A Letter from America – Melanie’s take on The Slap (here)

Son News Pictorial

Journal: 085

I was going to do this yesterday, when I pulled up for the night, but it was too late. Tonight (Sunday) I got in to Perth, from Melbourne, after 6.00pm and, feeling slack, put it off to tomorrow. But I’ve just (8.30pm) had a message asking me to commence unloading first thing in the morning. So here we go.

Blame Melanie. It was her suggestion that when I’m pushed for time I should do a post in pictures. In this case, my trip to Victoria for Mum’s 90th birthday shindig at B3’s farm outside Bendigo last weekend.

Top: no freight, so put middle trailer on back trailer and ran over empty.

Parked the Volvo behind the shed’s on B3’s farm. Dropped the trailers in a paddock a few kms closer to the highway.

The big day. Mum surrounded by great grandchildren.

Bendigo School of Mines is one of Australia’s oldest tertiary education institutions, these days in sad decline, the unwanted outpost of a Melbourne western suburbs TAFE. This is the upper level of the original domed reading room, which houses the rare book collection but is otherwise unused.

The original Library and School of Mines buildings. My librarian cousin showed me round on Monday.

Seeing as we were still all (nearly all) in town we older generations went to an Italian restaurant for dinner.

Tuesday I drove Milly to the airport and Lou into town. I was meant to drive Psyche on Weds but B3 was taking Mum home so he did that for me and I went off to load. You’ve seen pictures of my standard load, cars over the top of steel, so I’ll save you from another. Homer wants me back running Melbourne Perth and paid me a substantial increase as inducement. I’ll think about it.

Karen/Booker Talk says WP is reducing/charging more for media storage so I’m going to have to come back and shrink all these 3Mb photos. And looking at the preview, I probably should stick to writing anyway.

My Career Goes Bung, Miles Franklin

April’s post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge reprises a post I wrote years ago and which only Melanie read. Until years later anyway when I was admonished by ‘Azzurosky’ for claiming Sybylla’s older admirer, ‘Goring Hardy’ was based on Banjo Paterson, but on reflection that is a claim by which I stand.

This week I have been on holiday in Bendigo for mum’s 90th birthday – which went very well, thank you – and now I am in Melbourne loading for home. I must say holidaying with family doesn’t seem to leave any more time for blogging, than does working.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

Making the case that My Career Goes Bung, far from being a ‘sequel’, is the ‘frame’ through which Franklin wishes us to re-view her adolescent masterpiece My Brilliant Career. Read on … (my apologies to the early birds who got this far and discovered I’d forgotten to provide the link).