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Logic in the Ash

The Arsonist
by Chloe Hooper
Penguin
272pp
34.99 AU
Published October, 2018
ISBN 9780670078189

On 7 February 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires ravaged Victoria and ended the lives of 173 people. At the site of the fire that started in Churchill, a town in the Latrobe Valley, detectives found evidence suggesting it was intentionally ignited. Not far from the site, they discovered ‘a sky-blue sedan parked at an odd angle by the grass verge of Glendowald Road. The car looked to have stopped suddenly’. As the detectives gathered witness reports, they heard that during the bushfire, an unusual man was spotted wandering through the blaze, carrying in his arms a tiny dog. The results from the sedan’s plates return, and they discover it is owned by Brendan Sokaluk, a LaTrobe Valley local. From there, The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper, proceeds in three parts—The Detectives, The Lawyers, and The Courtroom—and ends with the conviction of Brendan Sokaluk.

Images of the bushfire as a creature that ‘licks’ the land open The Arsonist, and tempt the reader to position the fire as the book’s central character.  If this were the case, however, there’d be no need to read more than seventy pages. Were we to accept a fire-as-protagonist thesis, the greatest point of tension would occur in the first act, causing the rest of the book to slump. But the central character of The Arsonist is Brendan Sokaluk, a shadowy shapeshifter, and the book an inquiry into why he set his hometown ablaze.

Hooper dug through court transcripts, documents and interviews to recreate the Black Saturday bushfires and inquest and to present a context for her account of Brendan Sokaluk’s crimes. If not handled carefully, reconstruction narratives can turn stories into unsolvable puzzles.  This is because they derive their narrative coherence from atomised sources that often conflict with each other. While Hooper does allow her multiple characters many digressions,  The Arsonist achieves its clarity through strict linear chronology. The characters offer myriad interpretations of Sokaluk’s motivations which Hooper does not adjudicate; there remains space for the reader to decide what they believe to be true about the fires and about the arsonist. And indeed they must, because Sokaluk, although present throughout the book, is always at one remove, both from the reader and from Hooper, who was unable to interview him.

When Brendan Sokaluk is arrested for intentionally lighting a bushfire, arson causing death, and possession of child pornography, the inquest into the fires quickly becomes an interrogation of his sanity. He was known to the locals for exhibiting strange behaviour. A neighbour reported that Brendan would bang ‘away in his shed, pulling apart old bits of junk he’d collected. He’d be listening to narrated episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine or Bob the Builder.’ Another local claimed his threats had made his co-workers, like him, gardeners at Monash University’s La Trobe Valley campus, resign from their jobs. ‘Some gardeners seemed scared of him . . . one apprentice soon resigned because she couldn’t handle working alongside the man. Brendan threatened his colleagues and if they complained, they reckoned, their carkeys would go missing, or they’d find the aerials snapped off their cars. Brendan was cunning, they said. He knew where the surveillance cameras were.’ But perhaps most incriminating was Sokaluk’s dismissal from the Churchill Fire Brigade after he ‘began appearing at a series of fires to which he hadn’t been called. After a lengthy conversation, Brendan allegedly admitted to lighting the fires so he could go out on the truck and help fight them.’

Sokaluk’s disorientated way of speaking borders on unintelligible. One police officer remarked that ‘his eyes move as if behind a mask.’ In Part II of The Arsonist, Hooper portrays Sokaluk through the lawyers who are representing him to the court, most importantly Selena McCrickard and Jane Dixon, who were assigned to the case by the community legal service. Hooper points out that from a legal point of view, ‘people with an intellectual disability were more vulnerable to all the tactics of ingratiation and threat that police commonly used.’ Could Sokaluk be sincerely confused about what occurred, or at least his role in it? Either way, his lawyers were ‘not encountering the same person the police were. . .’ To them, Sokaluk’s apparent lack of remorse verged on sociopathy. But Sokaluk’s aloofness, his almost mechanical egocentrism, was what made his McCrickard suspect there was more at play than an intellectual disability.

As she narrates the inquest, Hooper ruminates on mental illness:

When a mentally ill person did something heinous, goodwill vanished in an instant, and the radio shock jocks were soon telling an audience eager to believe in their own righteousness and sound mental health that the impairment was fake.

Sokaluk did not escape a trial-by-social-media. After Black Saturday, a website called ‘KillBrendanSokaluk’ appeared, along with a ‘Brendan Sokaluk Must Burn In Hell’ group on Facebook, and another group ‘purportedly offering ten thousand dollars to anyone who killed him.’ It is a paradox that in cyberspace retribution for violence is usually expressed in a call for hateful death. It shows two things: ‘justice’ can be sometimes nothing more than a pretty dress for eye-for-an-eye revenge; and the media causes unproductive strain to the clarity of an investigation. ‘The lynching party was electronic: how could he not be stigmatised by this media coverage?’ Hooper asks. ‘With his image intercut with those of the fire, would there be twelve people in the state who could sit unbiased in a jury box?’ These are important questions, not only because blame is lumped upon the accused before being found guilty, but also because the courtroom is a scene of conflicting perspectives. In this case, ‘the police and prosecutor’s view that he was cunning and calculating vied with Dixon’s story of a hapless naif, a simpleton more sinned against than sinning, caught up in events beyond his control.’

Sokaluk tells detectives he didn’t mean to light the fire, that he had done so accidentally with the good old cigarette-out-the-window, a cliché for bushfires like two-up on ANZAC Day:

And I was smoking, a bit fell down and so I grab a bit of paper and to grab it and flick it out sort of thing, have to squish, flick that and it must’ve ignited . . . And then I noticed there was fire, and I panicked, and I called 000.

Even Hooper initially has reservations about this testimony, observing that ‘for arsonists who thrill to the drama of the emergency response, it is not unusual to call in the fire they’ve lit.’ Sokaluk’s iconic ciggy-out-the-window, ‘a classic Australian story of carelessness begetting fire,’ is discredited in court by the prosecution’s fire experts who claimed ‘the cigarette would need to land on, and embed in, very fine types of forest fuel and be attended by just the right airflow, and even then it would still only occasionally produce flames.’ What makes Sokaluk such a perplexing subject for Hooper is that ‘how smart or dumb or cunning or oblivious he was seemed to change from moment to moment.’

Autism expert and activist Temple Grandin observes that individuals on the spectrum exist in a type of parallel reality, not lesser but contrasting. Hooper’s account of the criminal investigation of Brendan Sokaluk illuminates the complexities of living with autism. She describes the symptoms of autism as ‘outward signs of a more profound difference,’ quoting Grandin who points out that ‘insignificant little stresses caused the same reaction as being attacked by a lion,’ some clothing ‘feels like sandpaper scraping away at raw nerve endings,’ rain sounds like ‘gunfire,’ and the lack of eye contact a ‘sensory jumbling, an inability to look at someone and listen to them at the same time.’ Here, The Arsonist engages not only with autism but with broader ideas about how mental illness affects culpability. Even the classification of arson as a mental disorder has had an assorted  history: ‘Over the 75-year history of the mental health bible, the DSM, the classification of pyromania has fallen in and out of fashion and different editions’ pages,’ writes Hooper.

‘Each morning of the long, tense days that followed the jury view, one of Brendan’s solicitors would call him at the assisted-living facility to remind him it was time to leave for court.’ So begins the grinding final part of The Arsonist.  As James Ley observes in his essay ‘Gut Instinct’, Helen Garner’s empathetic approach and use of first-person disrupts an otherwise gruelling, mechanical court procedure. In the trial of Brendan Sokaluk we have many characters and objects – but no key players to guide our focus, and Hooper conspicuously avoids adjudicatory first person interventions. The omissions of the narrator seem to be essential to The Arsonist, because they free Hooper to enact a kind of emotional distance from her subject, even though this may not actually be the case.

Sokaluk seems to have difficulty answering simple questions. Under cross-examination, he is asked the question, ‘do you remember that they told you what the offence was that you were under arrest for?’ To which he replies, ‘I’ll say yes, but I don’t remember.’ Could he be simulating misunderstanding? In a brief detour into free-indirect style, Hooper enters the mind of the detective Adam Shoesmith as he watches the proceedings:

Shoesmith could almost hear a barrister dismiss as coincidental Brendan’s driving around the bush at the time of ignition. His sitting on the roof watching the inferno? Well, they were just the odd habits of a man who was a little unusual.

Another detective suspects Sokaluk sabotaged the investigation by ‘deliberately being a smartarse, acting vague. Playing up whatever his impairment was to disrupt the interview.’ Hooper doesn’t direct her reader to share the instincts of the detectives, or of Sokaluk’s lawyers, although the evidence of pre-meditation begins to make Sokaluk appear increasingly insincere. For example, two days before the fire Brendan Sokaluk submitted an anonymous Crime Stoppers report, which was later found on his seized computer. The report reads:

What is happening? a bad man lighten fires
When is it happening? on saterday
Where is it happening? glendonal road outside Churchill
Why are they doing it? on edge of plan tastion.
How are they doing it? can,nt see his back is to me.
Is there anything else you believe may be helpful? its a d,s,e [Department of Sustainability and Environment] fire fighter, lighten the fire why is he doing this bad thing I could of died if the wind chance I’d tryed to tell the police but they were too byse.
Who is committing the crime? I saw a d,s,e fire fighter light a fire on the edge of the road as I went pass I’m sceared that the bad man will get me.

Artefacts like these, and Sokaluk’s very demeanour in the courtroom, undermine the certainty of the detectives as to his culpability. But if his confusion engenders sympathy, the horrors of the fire quell it:

A woman whose brother died in the fire had lost contact with people because she didn’t want to be asked, or have to answer, how she was… Another woman worried that she would forget her brother’s voice and mannerisms… A man who’d stood in a local fire station begging firefighters to send help to the house where his son was trapped would hear a song on the radio that his son had once listened to and be brought instantly undone.

Hooper reminds us that ‘the Latin root of this word [remorse], remordére, means “to bite back”; it’s the gnawing of one’s conscience.’ It is this need for justice, real justice, not just legally administered, that drives The Arsonist the same way it did in The Tall Man. It’s impossible to surpass the tragic firestorm that ended the lives of 173 people in Latrobe Valley – but Sokaluk’s inscrutability abides:

The legal contest had pitted the story of a fiend against that of a simpleton, but the two weren’t mutually exclusive. Brendan was both things. Guileful and guileless, shrewd and naive. A man apparently capable of unleashing chaos and horror, who now, behind the perspex of the cells, looked so bewildered that when the lawyers said goodbye they felt devastated, for it seemed they were leaving behind a child.

There’s a coda to The Arsonist that is written in present-tense, first-person as Hooper visits Churchill to examine the post-bushfire recovery:

Now, as I stand looking at Brendan’s old house, I’ve nearly finished writing this book, which came in fits and starts, after persuading people to speak, and learning of material that was hard to access, then too hard to deal with. I have spent years trying to understand this man and what he did, my own motivation sometimes as indecipherable as his. And, I wondered, what if, having asked the police and lawyers dozens of questions, then more questions, trying to get tiny details right, I essentially ended up with little more than a series of impressions? Would the result be ultimately a fiction?

It is a powerful passage –  and yet the diegesis comes very late. The reader has already strung together an idea of Sokaluk from the series of impressions Hooper has so carefully presented. It no longer matters whether these impressions are accurate because the idea of Sokaluk, Hooper’s simulation of the arsonist, has taken hold.