Saturday, November 15, 2008

Road to Nowhere (The Weekend Australian, Nov 08)

Delia Falconer (ed.), The Penguin Book of the Road
Penguin; $35; 385pp

It is interesting to reflect on the ways in which literature is influenced by particular modes of transport. Might it be the case, for example, that the decline of traditional English metres is dimly related to the decline of train travel, with its anapaestic clickety-clack? (John Betjeman, a noted choo-choo tragic, was also an adept of the running rhythm.) And, if such a case can be made (and I make it semi-seriously), might not the now-ubiquitous car have had an effect on our literature as well? If so, then what effect has it had? Jokes about autobiography aside, what do we mean by ‘road literature’?

As Delia Falconer rightly says in her preface to The Penguin Book of the Road, the answer will vary from country to country. ‘[Australia’s] road stories may not subscribe to the triumphalist grandeur or existential wildness of the American tradition, or share its generic self-awareness (they are often part of other stories rather than ‘road stories’ per se), but they do something different and perhaps more interesting – they seem to always look back over their own shoulders.’ In the US, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson gave a psychological (and psychedelic) twist to the frontier experience of previous generations. In Australia, by contrast, the road appears as something ‘haunted and hyper-alert’. ‘Things shimmer, sensations are heightened; relationships become slightly unreal, even characters’ relationships with themselves.’ Falconer’s sense is that Australia’s road literature is in fact very closely related to the ghost story. That two of the pieces included here, William Hay’s ‘An Australian Rip Van Winkle’ and Barbara Baynton’s ‘A Dreamer’, are also included in The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction (MUP) lends a generous dollop of credence to this view.

Normally, an anthology such as this would be judged on the strength of the pieces within it and not on the extent to which those pieces support the anthological principle. However, I found it almost impossible to separate text and overtext in this instance. Falconer calls Australian road stories ‘a unique and under-appreciated sub-genre of our literature’. But a genre is ‘sub’ by definition. Indeed, this sounds like a fancy way of saying that the road is wholly peripheral to many of the pieces included in the book. Her own contribution, ‘The Republic of Love’ – a magnificent prose threnody for Ned Kelly spoken by the ‘tart of Jerilderie’ – barely mentions the road at all (though Ned, we assume, is on the hoof when he and Mary aren’t on the job). Similarly, Malcolm Knox’s ‘Virginity and its Promise’ (extracted from his novel Summerland) is a wonderful evocation of childhood to which the road is nothing more than a stubbornly unsymbolic backdrop.

On the whole, it is the fiction extracts that prove the least successful inclusions. Novelists take pains to delineate character, to set the scene, to establish mood. To isolate a chunk of novel on the pretext that a road runs through it will inevitably look like insensitivity, especially if that road is just scenery. Moreover, by making the road the focus, Falconer accords it an importance or a resonance that may not have been in the novelist’s mind. To this extent, the best of the extracts are Gillian Mears’s ‘The Burial and the Busker’ (extracted from her novel Fineflour), in which the road is clearly employed as a symbol, and Tim Winton’s beautifully written ‘North’, an extract from his novel Dirt Music, in which the road does indeed play a crucial role in setting the tone of eerie menace.

Short stories are a better way to go. Dorothy Hewett’s ‘Nullarbor Honeymoon’, with its modulations of voice and tense, is a well crafted and unsettling piece, while Peter Carey’s early short story, ‘American Dreams’, is a joy to read. There are also some very accomplished vignettes from memoirs and autobiographies, including a lovely bit of slapstick from Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs (some business with a billycart) and a harrowing extract from Peter Rose’s 2001 memoir, Rose Boys, describing the day his footballer-brother was crippled in a terrible accident. Another reminder of just how dangerous life on Australia’s roads can be is Robert Hughes’s ‘A Bloody Expat’, from his memoir Things I Didn’t Know, in which the Nissan Pulsar Hughes was driving when he crashed into an oncoming car is ‘folded around me like crude origami’.

There are some very good things in this anthology. But too much is taken out of context. Perhaps it would have been an idea to include some poetry along with the prose. Les Murray’s ‘Driving Through Sawmill Towns’ would have been a fine inclusion – one that would have chimed with Falconer’s description of the Australian road as ‘sexy, dangerous, nostalgic, harsh, mysterious and unnerving’.

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