Timing for today’s review fits nicely with the revelation of my favourite books of 2016, this work clearly sits amongst the top ten books of the year, however I am going to leave it off the list, purely based on its limited availability. Only 350 copies of this novel were produced, by Island Magazine in Tasmania, it has sold out and my understanding is there will be no more print runs. Therefore to highlight the book on a “best of” list that not many people are going to get to read is a tad obscure, if you are based in Victoria in Australia there are ten copies available through libraries, so an intra library loan is a possibility.
David Ireland has won Australia’s pre-eminent literature prize, the Miles Franklin, three times, 1971 for “The Unknown Industrial Prisoner”, 1976 for “The Glass Canoe” and 1979 for “A Woman of the Future”, a book that won “The Age Book of the Year” in 1980. The Australian Literature Society Gold Medal was awarded in 1985 for “Archimedes and the Seagle”. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in June 1981 for his contribution to literature. Since 1987, with the publication of “Bloodfather” there was a ten year hiatus until “The Chosen” appeared in 1997 and then he disappeared off of the map.
As the Afterword explains;
…in 2004, David Ireland, three-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, submitted his latest novel to a series of publishers. That work, Desire, was the 300-odd page account of a man entrapped and sexually tortured by a woman he met in a bar. In was a savagely explicit investigation of the relationship between predator and prey, and a fierce indictment of the political and social moment in which it appeared. Everyone who read the manuscript knocked it back. This collective refusal was not just about the novel’s subject matter, however. It reflected a shift in critical opinion towards Ireland and his work that had been building for some time.
The violence and misogyny that characterised Ireland’s earlier novels…began to erode his standing as intellectual fashions changed in the years after Australia’s bicentenary.
His writing had not altered considerably across time but the hierarchy of values by which such work was judged had. During a period when Ozlit was mainly concerned with the recuperation or celebration of once-marginal literary voices belonging to women, migrants and indigenous Australians, Ireland’s transgressive tales of working-class white blokes rubbed against the weave of the cultural moment.
“The World Repair Video Game” was shortlisted for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award (the main gong was shared and given to Charlotte Wood for “The Natural Way of Things” and Lisa Gorton for “The Life of Houses”), where the judges described the work as “a novel largely devoid of conventional character and storytelling “!!!
Lisa Hill and ANZ LitLovers LitBlog called out a SPOILER ALERT (not knowing if she should) by revealing our narrator Kennard Sterling’s extracurricular activities, I really don’t know if a spoiler alert is required as his Travis Bickle style behaviour although crucial to his tale is not the crux of his story. However if you don’t want to know the narrative plot of this story stop reading now.
As mentioned our narrator is Kennard Sterling, and the book covers a few months in his life, all presented in a revealing diary, a diary where he divulges his daily chores, helping locals, running with his dog Ken, wandering the bush, revegetating his property for future nature lovers, watching the view from the top of the Big Hill, getting there via a green path self-made of concrete and ground human bones, growing his own vegetables using ash made from human flesh in his compost, and finding “useless” non-contributing members of society, with birds on their heads and bird shit down their backs;
Markets, careers, bureaucrats, solidarity with others, none of these are for me. Free society can never be perfect, busy conscientious humans must be allowed their imperfections. My modest aim, while keeping mostly to myself, is to repair the world around me in small ways. Make it better. Adjust it, so it’s better to live in. Not perfection, but more tidy around the edges.
It’s a step towards my own salvation, which is an emotional thing. Without being embedded in it, I serve the community as a free agent.
Each day Kennard’s thoughts are interrupted by “Pym”, flashback style recollections of his youth or of other significant moments in his life. These thoughts can cause the linear narration to divert on a tangent, or the appearance of the thoughts can be discussed themselves.
Maybe a neurologist could describe a number of origins of these interruptions. By the way, Pym is Edgar Allan Poe’s real name. I like Poe. Who can resist the physical fascination and fear in “The Pit and the Pendulum”, the pace and excitement of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, or the nightmare dread in “The Masque of the Red Death”?
Kennard is a complex character, the unrelenting internal monologue is not one you can read for more than a few pages at a time, with regular breaks a prerequisite. Kennard believes is is doing the righteous thing;
I lie in bed, watching the clouds to the east. Murmuring magpies in nests herald another energetic day of high white clouds and sun. My aims are mainly rational, I think. I take time to help others though I necessarily come from outside their community, but assisting is good and right in my world. I have also in me things, objectives, hungers that are not rational, yet I believe that growing things, plants, societies, need pruning to promote healthy growth. Trimming the world at the edges is a needful work. My non-rational wants I haven’t the time or head-space to think of now, but one is Leonora.
He passes judgement on others;
I learned from teachers I respected that human dignity belongs to those who are moral beings. This is not a moral being.
He’s repairing a broken world;
Repairing a broken world, my project, I see as a good work. As a single passionate idea it contains explosive power but must be in harness with the compulsion, the ability and the readiness to act.
This man rejects, lifelong, the production process, he’s missing, yet accepts its benefits, which is not a moral life. Those who don’t want to be part of this world and take part in its customs, are candidates for expulsion.
This is a never ending, questioning soliloquy, the questions the thought processes thrown at you wear you out;
At night I walk up to the path to listen. There is no sound.
In my empty room I stand, and I’m empty too.
I hear the silence and it’s not nothing.
What a poor day, I think, looking back on it.
Kennard helps the aged and infirm locals with their gardening, their shopping, to him they have paid their debt to society, so they are worthy of assistance not scorn, is this the 89 year old David Ireland commenting on his own career?
More than a manifesto from a Seamus Heaney reading, Mozart listening, Patrick Bateman without the consumerism, the layers here are many and complex, for example, his death implement Ottelits or Ott (Stiletto spelt backwards) is talked to as animate, it is given more love than his victims. Kennard’s relationship is with a tree Big Manna, his ute Brian and his dog Ken. His family relationship, his ethics, morals and the nattering of “Pym” make up this complex loner, a loner who refers occasionally to Leonora, memories of a failed relationship, failed as he loved her unreciprocated though, and you’re left with a very uneasy feeling about her fate.
The quotes are that politically astute, relevant, moving or controversial, and so numerous it is neigh on impossible to choose the highlights for here;
What is the poem saying in the white spaces? What do lives say in the gaps between events and people? What happened to us or to poetry that we ordinary people can no longer be confident that we know that the poet is saying and why? Grandpa said to put no trust in verse. Why?
Like Marlow, from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, this is a search to find oneself “What am I?” and “At the end, will I be able to say I’ve done something of worth?”, “I don’t understand myself. I really am incomplete.
A very uncomfortable and complex work, narcissistic, and dabbling in areas where we may not want to go, this is an important work, it shows that there are people here in Australia still willing to push boundaries. As our literature becomes more homogenised, more pasteurised by the day, as “creative writing” becomes so bland and immediate, the bestsellers so similar, it is great to see some stalwarts sticking to their guns and producing works such as this.
How on earth can a writer celebrated 30-40 years ago suddenly struggle to get a book published? If he had lost his marbles and was producing trash maybe, but this is an aggravating, antagonistic, unsettling novel, a book through Kennard’s ideas, containing multitudes, a work that stays with you long after you’ve put it down, a work that should be celebrated for its singularity, giving voice to a narrator who contains little elements of all of us. Aren’t protagonists nowadays allowed to be xenophobic, narcissistic, racist, sexist? Therefore aren’t characters allowed to reflect society? Has political correctness gone that far that we have to censor voices that are not vanilla?
My highlight of 2016 Australian fiction and I did read quite a bit this year (including the book that knocked it off for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award), I’m all for David Ireland’s voice continuing bright, even as he enters his ninetieth year. Pity the poor bastard gets no recognition for his efforts.