Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Book review: Great Western Highway, Anthony Macris (2012)

As the subtitle ('A Love Story') implies, this wonderful novel is about two young people, in their early-30s, living in Sydney's Inner West, who are working out if they want to be together. That's the short version. But look at the cover. It's turned out in the classic horror-movie colours of purple and green and it features a grab from a photo of Parramatta Road, ostensibly the ugliest piece of road in Australia. There's a car dealership visible on the right, there are the after-image burns of car headlights as the passing vehicles stream at speed into the city, there is the worn asphalt gleaming dully, like satin, in the night.

The photo on the cover could serve as an illustration for the book's final chapter, which of course features Nick and Penny who, as I mentioned, are in the throes of deciding whether they're going to stay together. Early-30s. Ripe for marriage. For children. For responsible jobs, a 3-bedroom house and a mortgage, for a new car. The novel's forward movement hinges on the answer to this question: will they stay together? Will they split? As the author mentions in his after note, this is an eternal subject for fiction. And for good reason; reproduction is an organic necessity, and so intimacy and the relationships that foster it are an essential element of the human experience. But a quick read through that note also shows that there's a lot more going on in this novel than just a love story. How does love function, Macris asks, within the demanding complex of forces of modern capitalism?

Both Nick and Penny have rejected the "safe" option of a career path, and are happy to get along by taking on low-paid jobs that give them enough free time to do the other things they enjoy. The kind of casualised employment they take up, however, seems at odds with what is expected of them were they to commit and marry. Everything tells them this: the images they confront wherever they find themselves in the urban environment proliferate and bump roughly into each other as they do so, creating a confusing jumble of messages that scream "Consume!" wherever they turn. But for thoughtful individuals like these two it's hard to believe in something you have no respect for - the images in the book of the Persian Gulf War serve a specific purpose here, as does its impressive Margaret Thatcher soliloquy - and so they remain confused. The novel tries to describe the texture of the confusion the two feel as they spend a single afternoon and night together in their natural environment: on the fringes of Parramatta Road, that great, humming, pulsing thoroughfare that stretches, a vital artery, from one side of this city of 4.5 million souls to the other.

In the book's opening chapter Nick is walking cityward down Parramatta Road on his way to meet Penny at her house. It's been a couple of months since they last saw each other. They've officially split up. But the feelings they had for each other remain strong. Nick pops into a bottle-o to buy a bottle of Bundy, which he knows Penny likes to drink. But as he walks he's assaulted from all sides by the commercial entreaties of a thousand shopfronts, illustrated awnings, posters, flyers, and by the incessant, primordial thunder of traffic on the highway. Nevertheless he struggles on, as if against a headwind. Cut to Penny in her workplace, a job centre where her role is to help the unemployed to find work. It's a hard day in the office, and Penny has an evaluation to undergo. Work over, she goes home to cook, and Nick joins in. After eating, the two young people catch a couple of movies on free-to-air then catch Lateline on the ABC.

Not much happens, it might seem at first, but it's in the functioning of the perceptions of the two young people - in every way; auditory, visual, sensory, sentimental and even in the landscapes they create in their dreams - that the drama unfolds. In the Lateline sequence, for example, Macris cleverly undermines the usually seamless facade of the humdrum daily TV program by inserting himself inside Margaret Thatcher's skull as she is being interviewed by Kerry O'Brien, and gives us a stream-of-consciousness account of the ex-PM's thoughts as they run through her mind while she is being interviewed by the veteran host. It's a masterful performance reminiscent of the Molly Bloom chapter at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses. Macris displays a formidable talent in this chapter, but with each chapter possessing its own unique tone and form, the author ably demonstrates a truly superior ability to capture complex interrelations between his characters and the world they inhabit.

And the story builds its own logic. It is the author's task to draw this out to its ultimate close. Nick and Penny had split, we find, because Nick is still hung up about Christina, a previous girlfriend who left him a decade before. Penny knows this and resents it. But Penny still likes Nick. In addition, Penny has found that she is to lose her job in six months. At a bit of a loose end, she finds herself forced to take stock of her life. Macris builds these forces up in subtle ways. He takes us to London, for example, where Nick and Christina shared a flat, and even to the very day that Christina finally decided to leave Nick. It's a trivial occurrence that sparks her decision but clearly things had been going downhill for a while. Macris also takes us to Christina's parent's home in suburban Brisbane to illustrate something about the nature of their relationship that could not otherwise be conveyed to the reader. These are touching scenes, full of the pathos of young love.

Also in London we return in time to the days of the Persian Gulf War. After Christina leaves Nick, he rents a TV and drowns his sorrows by insatiably consuming news reports beamed in real time from the front lines, the scenes of second-hand carnage spread out across the TV screen and intermingling with the routine domesticity of the flat that Nick still inhabits. Adding to his difficulties, Nick loses his position teaching English to migrants, and then succumbs to a severe flu. In these chapters the forward movement of the narrative hinges on whether Nick will be able to pay the rent, feed himself, and save up enough money to return to Brisbane, since his visa is about to expire. Amid this life crisis, the scenes of war and of death take on an especially fraught aspect.

Then we are back in Sydney. Back on Parramatta Road. Back in the drama of Nick and Penny. Somehow, despite the odds seemingly stacked against them, we wish them well.

This novel is Macris' second, and he told me when I spoke with him that it is the product of 16 years of effort; his first novel, Capital, was published to critical acclaim in 1997. He also says in his after note that Great Western Highway is the second part of a planned three-part series of novels. The sustained effort shows. Every now and then you come across something so strange and beautiful, so different, that you feel as if the big wheels that make up the superstructure of the artform have just shifted a bit. For me, reading this novel was like this. 

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