Another poet might invoke Edmund Burke’s famous treatise on the Sublime and the Beautiful as a piece of phraseology or a pleasing adornment, but with John Kinsella, such a title is dead serious. Elliot Perlman’s superb novel Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) ingeniously makes the reader think of William Empson’s, and the idea of plural signification it evokes, but not instantly to reread it. Kinsella’s use of Burke’s title prompts one to reread the original – ideally, in a Kinsellan métier, on the internet, late at night. Additionally, the ‘shades’ in Kinsella’s title is an important supplement – shades as variations, colourings, but also shadows, undertones.
First impressions are unfavourable. The cover is ugly, and too cute: human-headed sheep, male and female, wait motionless for a drought to end while wearing prime ministerial bush-visit hats. We have read Frank Campbell’s rebuke in the Australian: the author Jeanette Hoorn did not know a fox’s tail from a dingo’s. Inside, however, there is a cheering profusion of illustrations, placed in unusually reader-friendly closeness to the relevant discussion, and they include a feast of the best Australian paintings. There are some interesting sources in English eighteenth-century art and, much less familiar, some parallels in German fascist art.
Readers of Kayang and Me should not be lulled by the beauty of its prose or by its seemingly easy location within the now-familiar genre of indigenous life story. This book dislodges its white readers from positions of quietude or certainty, and takes us into a world marked by irredeemable loss – our own as well as Noongars’. Among other things, Kayang and Me points to the crucial things that settler-colonisers have lost or forsaken in the mistaken pursuit of the bounties of colonisation, and it calls for nothing less than a radical remaking of the Australian nation-state. Significantly, it installs writing and reading as practices through which the past, present and future might come to be differently known and newly imagined. The white reader is shown to be implicated in the story she holds in her hands, in its vision of another future as well as in its tragic present and past.
What is the comparative of prolific? John Kinsella, in this latest extension of his ‘counter-pastoral’ project, manages a tricky balancing act between the extreme givens of the bush and the fashions of art gallery and English Department. A belligerent posturing is implicit in Kinsella’s term, while there is only so far a poet can be anti-Georgics or extra-Georgics or post-Georgics before the game becomes exhausted or obvious. Nevertheless, ‘counter-pastoral’ is an extended essay that takes the pastoral concerns and illusoriness of ancient and eighteenth-century Europe and tests them against our own realities: environmental degradation, both random and systematic destruction of nature by humans, and a seeming indifference on the part of many Australians to doing anything about them.
Kim Scott is described on the inside cover of Benang, his second novel, as ‘a descendant of people who have always lived along the south-east coast of Western Australia and is glad to be living in times when it is possible to explore the significance of that fact and be one among those who call themselves Nyoongar ...
Lasseter, it has been said, was a strange man, admired for his unusual and innovative ideas. He told a story of being caught during a storm in Central Australia: he put all his clothes in a hollow log, stood naked until the storm passed, and was then able to don his dry clothing. Though some claim that Lasseter was at Gallipoli, he did become the source of another great Australian myth of failure.
Three sections at the beginning of Marion Campbell’s second novel, Not Being Miriam, initiate its preoccupations and problems. They relate incidents from the childhood of Bess Valentine, its major character. In the first and shortest, Bess creates a transforming ritual, a childish game with significant narrative implications. Bess strips herself and Sean, paints their bodies with clay, the children enter the water which washes away the clay; then she dresses in Sean’s boxer shorts and clothes him in her bubble bathers.
At various times in its history, the Australian short story has been predictable, as editorial and public appetites have limited experimentation. I am glad to be reading now, when approval can be conferred on collections as different and as variously excellent as Julie Lewis’s The Walls of Jericho and Peter Skrzynecki’s The Wild Dogs. Lewis’s work is more formally experimental than Skrzynecki’s, but both collections offer insight into the social and the literary.
Fiction which is well-choreographed is difficult to resist. Joan London’s first collection of short stories, Sister Ships, is a dancerly go at mimesis; poised, unerring, it keeps its promises. And to run the tautological line between ‘literature’ and life, as all writing must, reminds us of the possibility for faux pas as well as the pas de deux; in one instance, an amnesia as to what has already been said, and in the other, stories which are so gracefully designed that they can say the same thing twice, or more, and we remember and witness such repetitions with pleasure.
Peter Cowan’s new novel The Color of the Sky is an elliptical, even enigmatic, narrative. Although specifically labelled a ‘novel’, it is a novella in its concision pf narrative explanation; as well as in its length. The layers of event and reminiscence are multifarious enough to fill out a hefty tome but are compressed in such a way that they become almost cryptic messages requiring considerable deciphering on the part of the reader.