Saturday, November 16, 2013

"I Am Compelled Into This Country," Australian Fiction Post 2

Bet you thought I'd forgotten about this series. But how could I possibly deny you lovely folk the literature of my people? I couldn't, not in good conscious, so here you go an entire post about Australian contemporary literary fiction.

Everyone loves a good Carlton dance.
But in truth, this series is more difficult that I'd thought it'd be. Do I just list a bunch of awesome books with mini-synopses? Do I write full reviews for a collection of the ones I've read? Do I write a historical/biographical approach? So that's why this post has been so long in the pipes, it's been written and rewritten about a dozen times and I'm still not sure if it's going to be interesting and/or helpful for any of you. But oh wells, it is what it is. After this I'll be posting a genre fiction post and then a really huge list of books to read and awesome authors. I'll do my best to post the others so there aren't 10,000 years between this and the next post. Scouts honour.

First things first, I need to introduce you to Patrick White.

Guys - Patrick White, Patrick White - guys
So this sunny faced guy right here is the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was his book The Eye of the Storm which was credited by the Nobel committee as introducing "a new continent into literature". He was also a hell of a grump. At some point early in his career he decided he wanted nothing to do with awards, turning down a bunch of the more prolific Australian titles and didn't even attend when he won the Nobel prize. He was also an openly gay man at a time when it wasn't so great to be an openly gay man in Australia. All in all he was the kind of dude who had no time for your shit, and I love him. David Rice wrote a fantastic piece last year which goes into great detail about White and his books (I recommend Voss as a starting point).
White might seem elitist, fascist even, in his hatred of ordinariness and celebration of a chosen few, but you can feel the compassion and sadness underneath: it wasn't ordinary people he hated, but the cowardice with which people turn their backs on the extraordinary potential of our shared world in order to become ordinary.
Patrick White is sort of the patient zero for Australian literary fiction. Without him you can't have writers like Peter Carey or David Malouf and Australian fiction would be a hell of a lot poorer without these three dudes. Peter Carey is now based in America and a few of his more recent novels have been set in America, but his earlier and most celebrated books are all set in Australia. His 2000 novel The True History of the Kelly Gang is a semi-factual novel told from the perspective of bushranger Ned Kelly. It's HUGE and can be a little tricky to get a hang of the writing style but it's worth the effort. Another of his books, Oscar and Lucinda, was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes in the 1990s, so if you want to skip reading you can always go down that route (BOOOO). David Malouf is a Brisbane author (REPRESENT!) and best known for his short story fiction. His book Remembering Babylon is a striking full-length novel about identity and isolation and is just beautifully written. It's all about a white boy who was abandoned and then raised amongs Indigenous Australians before finding himself back among white settlers and struggling to identify and fit it. It's basically mandatory reading in any Australian fiction class and for good reason.

Bryce Courtenay and Thomas Keneally are probably more commercial and less literary than White, Malouf and Carey but since when is that a marker of greatness? Courtenay is actually South African by birth but emigrated to Australia after studying in England and meeting his to-be wife. You may have heard of his book The Power of One which takes place in South Africa during WW2 but as far as I'm aware none of his other novels, and there are plenty, are readily available overseas. Which is a crying shame because he's an epic storyteller who favours multi-generational bildungsroman narratives. As far as I'm concerned his greatest achievement is Four Fires, a book which meticulously represents 1950s Australia and is just SO GOOD. Thomas Keneally's writing is definitely available overseas, likely due to the fact that he wrote the book that the Spielberg classic film Schindler's List is based on. It was originally published as Schindler's Ark, and the story about how Keneally came to tell Schindler's story is fascinating in its own right and worth a read. Keneally writes a combination of non-fiction and fiction, though regardless of format they typically explore the human condition. His writing isn't limited to Australia (as Schindler's Ark attests) though he's written plenty on our people and culture as well.

Most of Australian literary fiction centres around two things. Either they're studies of family, or they're focused on the Australian landscape-either the bush, coast or suburban environments - or a combination of the two. Two prime examples come to mind. First is Christos Tsiolkas. Tsiolkas tends to focus on the family side of Australian life. His book The Slap (which I still need to read) is about the repercussions of a family friend slapping a child for misbehaving at a barbecue. It's also been made into a television series, which again I still need to watch, but I've heard pretty great things about it.  Tim Winton's books typically take place on the West Australian coast and the environment becomes a critical character in his work.
"The place comes first. If the place isn't interesting to me then I can't feel it. I can't feel any people in it. I can't feel what the people are on about or likely to get up to" (Tim Winton on writing)
Cloudstreet is probably Winton's most well-known and well-regarded novel, and it combines the place and the people to great success. Taking place on (you guessed it) Cloud Street between 1940 and 1960, the book focuses on two specific families and how they contrast and conflict with each other when they move into a house together.

In a sense all Australian fiction is about outsiders. We arrived in a country completely incompatible with our previous way of life. The environment was seen as harsh and aggressive, the weather was fierce and intense, and - save an Indigenous population - we were all alone and far from everyone else. Since then we've alienated and turned against just about every culture/sexuality/religion/race at some point in time, and while we've learnt from our somewhat turbulent history we've still got some ways to go. There has been an increase in migrant fiction here over the past 10 years or so, and it often presents a confronting picture of life in Australia as a migrant. The Eastern Slope Chronicle by Yu Ouyang touches on China's Cultural Revolution, life in Australia, multiculturalism and post-colonialism. Benjamin Law touches on some similar themes in his autobiography The Family Law, but writes it from a much more humourous and intimate perspective. Law has a bit of David Sedaris to his style of storytelling, and his recollections of his wild and crazy family provides a neat glimpse into the lives of an Chinese-Australian family.

There was a brief period of grunge youth writing in the 1980s/1990s that seemed to flourish here in Brisbane. It's hardly unique to Australia - it's the style of writing which you find in books like Trainspotting - but as they're often semi-autobiographical it's a fascinating window into the lives of people my age 20+ years ago. Andrew McGahan'Praise and 1988 (debut book and prequel) and John Birmingham's He Died With A Falafel In his Hand are perfect examples of this trend. They're about distinctly unlikable characters, sharehouse dramas, budding and waning relationships, drugs, alcohol and apathy. They're definitely not for everyone, but I unabashedly love this style of writing and the Gen-X whining so I'll always recommend them.

He Died With A Falafel was made into a movie in the late 1990s, and joined the ranks of the many, many Australian books that make that transition. One of the most famous is the Peter Weir helmed Picnic at Hanging Rock. The 1967 novel by Joan Lindsey is the perfect mix of haunting landscape and girls in white dresses. The book is a light mystery about a series of disappearances during a girl school's day trip to Hanging Rock. The events are left very up in the air, is it dreamtime magic, a rip in the space time continuum, murder? Another fantastic Australian novel that was adapted to screen is Luke DavisCandy: A Novel of Love and Addiction. The film starred the gorgeous Heath Ledger and Geoffrey Rush and was a very condensed interpretation of the book. Both the book and the film are emotionally charged, but the book will tear your heart out and stomp all over it. It covers 10 years in the life and juxtaposes the narrator's (he's never named) turbulent relationships with heroin addiction and his girlfriend Candy, and explores addiction, obsession and loss.

So I realise I look pretty bad right now, what with not mentioning any female authors (Joan Lindsey aside). But hold your horses, because that was intentional.

Australian ladies are wicked good, and deserve some proper space of their own. Sonya Hartnett is the first that comes to mind. She's one of those crazy people who has a book written at 13 and been published at 15 (you know, the type that makes you feel like you're wasting your life) and writes some of the most unsettlingly good stuff I've ever read. She's pretty controversial, you'll find a lot of sex and abuse and incest in her books, which is doubly controversial when you consider many people think of her as a YA author. Personally I think there's a difference about having young protagonists and writing YA, but regardless of that distinction you check out Sleeping Dogs (super bleak and incesty but gorgeous) and Of A Boy (about mysterious neighbours and loneliness).

Thea Astley is another fancy Aussie lady you should read. I've only read It's Raining in Mango, but she's well regarded as a compassionate and delightfully funny writer here in Australia and I've been meaning to read more of her for years. It's Raining in Mango takes place in 19th Century Australia and it's about so much. It's about people (Australian-born and immigrant), sexuality, racism, Australian culture...and it's done well. It's not an easy read, but I think it's a brilliant one if you're looking for some insight into Australia.

Representing the ladies in fiction and non-fiction, is Geraldine Brooks. I haven't read any of her books (for shame Kayleigh!) but from what I gather she's basically an Australian Hilary Mantel, fictionalising real life people and events to tell or add depth to a story that wouldn't be told otherwise. Actually, a few of you who like Little Women probably do know her. She's the author who wrote March, the book about Mr March's absence from the family during the war. Basically, she writes historical fiction with a literary bent and I'm not sure if Brooks has actually written about Australia or Australian history, but she's Australian so that still counts right? And as a final little nod to Australian lady authors I have to mention Hannah Kent. Her debut novel Burial Rites is blowing up internationally so this is an Australian author you can get in with on the ground level. Like Brooks, this isn't actually set in Australia - it's set in Iceland - but who even cares. READ IT.

So this is probably long enough for the time being. Obviously I haven't even gotten close to mentioning all the amazing Australian authors out there but these were the ones who came to my mind first and I'm pretty sure if you give any of them a shot you'll end up finding similar authors recommended to you on Goodreads or wherever, which is what this is all about right? RIGHT?

Want to see what you've missed so far?

Learning To Love A Sunburnt Country - Australian literature history
Fill Your Ears With Australians - Australian music

*Title quote from Voss by Patrick White


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