Is it still possible, in 2013, to speak of a novel as being experimental? This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Claude Simon, an experimental writer if there ever was one, so perhaps it is timely to consider whether avant-garde novelists have now gone the way of the dodo and the thylacine. Simon was a novelist of the special sort that the French excel in producing – a novelist in the way that, say, Georges Perec and Nathalie Sarraute were novelists: fanatical about detail, yet constantly thumbing their noses at the well-worn conventions of literary realism. Even in his seventies, Simon was still bringing out works that made the more theoretically-minded critics reach for their poshest vocabulary – collage, bricolage, mise en abîme, and so forth.
But that was thirty years ago when innovation in fiction did not seem such an exercise in self-delusion. For his part, Simon was always modest when describing his artistic method. In a celebrated essay, he likened the role of the writer to that of blind Orion in the famous painting by Nicolas Poussin – the figure of the sightless hunter, groping his way towards the light. Almost all of Simon’s fiction bears the marks of that uncertainty, that sense of having been produced by what he once called une lente évolution par tâtonnements – a slow evolution through trial and error.
In La Route des Flandres – perhaps his best known book, first published in 1960 and translated as The Flanders Road – Simon reconstructs the death of a French cavalry officer during the military debacle of twenty years earlier. This novel remains one of literature’s greatest treatments of the ignominy of war, an intricate study of remembered violence that is at once beautiful and bewildering. But, as with all of Simon’s major work, its true achievement lies in the way it dramatises its own narrative workings – how fragments of story cohere into the mosaic of art. ‘Readers will learn nothing from my books,’ the author insisted, ‘I have no message to deliver.’
Simon’s novels, one suspects, have never been widely read in the Anglophone world. This may also be the case in his homeland: the author himself said that, for France’s literary establishment, his 1985 Nobel Prize was like swallowing a hedgehog whole, needles and all. But his work continues to find its admirers, even on distant shores.
In this country, Simon has provided a model, or at least an inspiration, for the latest novel by Anthony Macris, Great Western Highway. Brisbane-born and now Sydney-based, Macris could not be accused of authorial incontinence – his first novel, Capital, Volume One (1997), appeared over fifteen years ago. It is plain from both works that Macris is eager to chance his arm at some of fiction’s more difficult trick-shots. First person narration suddenly shifts to second; point-of-view becomes stereoscopic without warning; emails and advertising abruptly intrude into a character’s interior monologue. These radical techniques are not new, but nor are they gimmickry. Like Simon, Macris is preoccupied with the vast fabric of living, with the ways in which the textures of past and present might be woven from the tiniest filaments of experience. Their shared objective is that of all serious novelists – the apprehension of reality in some unexpected or heightened or at least different way. In this regard, Macris has scored a considerable success: Great Western Highway is an ambitious, intelligent, tender and sometimes exasperating work of art.
The unorthodoxy of Great Western Highway is apparent from the opening pages. There is not one but two explanatory subtitles: Capital, Volume One, Part Two and A Love Story. The former nods both to Karl Marx and Macris’s earlier novel: the present book is to be a sequel of sorts, though not in any obvious way. By contrast, it is immediately obvious to the reader that this is indeed a story about love – or, more precisely, about love gone wrong. Set some time in mid-1997, the novel begins with the principal character, Nick, making a withdrawal from an ATM and then walking along Parramatta Road to visit his recently estranged girlfriend Penny. This traffic-choked thoroughfare – ‘one of the ugliest stretches of road in not only Sydney, but all of Australia,’ according to Nick – is the titular Great Western Highway. Much of the novel concentrates on the circumstances of the couple’s estrangement. Three months earlier, Penny ‘broke it off with Nick’ (she seems to prefer this bland phrasing to the crueller term, ‘dumped’). The reason she had sought an end to their relationship was Nick’s continuing obsession with an old girlfriend from the time he had lived in London. Not without justification, Penny finds herself fed up with Nick’s ‘lapses into Hamlet-like melancholia’. Now the couple (well, ex-couple) are negotiating the awkwardness of just ‘being friends’.
It is often surprising to learn how novelists conceptualise their own particular fiction-making methods. ‘The march of action is the thing for me,’ Henry James once confided to his notebook – a rather curious comment, given that he habitually produced novels in which, on the surface, not much seems to happen. In Great Western Highway, the march of action is also a pretty short trip. Nick proceeds along Parramatta Road to Penny’s place where they have dinner and watch some bad television. They go to bed, naked but sexlessly. Then, around one in the morning, Penny storms out into the night. This is the extent of the novel’s action – even more compact, one might say, than a certain novel dealing with life in Dublin on 16 June 1904. But like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), the substance of Great Western Highway is to be found in what happens in the interstices – in the lengthy flashbacks and meandering monologues and essayistic asides. It is here that the love story of Nick and Penny takes on a much greater weight. In an afterword, Macris explains that one of his principal concerns is ‘the increasing penetration of market forces into the fabric of everyday life’, including the most intimate aspects of human relations. In that respect, the two ex-lovers are conscious that they are being swept along by the great tide of History (with its unavoidable upper case). No doubt this is also another resonance of the title – the great Western way is capitalism, that complex and often invisible network of money and power that developed nations impose on their own citizens, and on everybody else.
The market forces that Macris worries about have certainly shaped Nick’s idea of love. At the ATM, he is transfixed by the bank’s advertising imagery – a series of cheesy photographs depicting the supposed stages of contemporary life, from beaming university graduate to smug coupledom. These images remind him of his own pageant of failure – abandoned five years ago by his London girlfriend and now de-coupled by Penny. His semiotic anxieties culminate in the next chapter when he sees a bank poster advertising zero establishment fees on home mortgages. This poster gets a whole page to itself, depicting a hypertrophied zero in what must be surely be a thirty-point font (considerably larger than the over-sized full stop that ends the ‘Ithaca’ section of Ulysses). For Nick, this big fat zero symbolises all the opportunities he has passed up and he begins to panic that ‘it was now all too late’ for him. Penny, for one, knows what that sort of panic feels like – she has just that day learned of her own impending retrenchment.
The long retrospective chapter on Penny’s afternoon at work could justifiably be claimed as the best part of this remarkable novel. It is funny, incisive and memorably sinister. The minatory element is injected by Joy Somerville, who manages the employment placement centre where Penny works. This centre is called (credibly, alas) ‘JobClub’ – Macris is brilliant at replicating the deformations of language practised by business and government. Joy is visiting the office that day to conduct Penny’s own employee ‘evaluation’ – that shudder-inducing term loved by managers everywhere. In the course of telling Penny that she will soon be out of a job, Joy launches into a spectacular rant about, inter alia, the modern economy. She blames an earlier generation of indolent public servants for generally mucking things up. Unforgettably, she calls them ‘the men in long grey socks’, whose other crimes of fashion include ‘those revolting synthetic dress shorts’. It is hard to think of any better treatment in recent Australian fiction of the absurdity and despair that comes with working in the quasi-privatised public sector. After suffering with Penny through the grimness of an afternoon at JobClub, capped off by Joy’s splenetic sermonising, one begins to think that Gogol’s clerks never knew how good they had it.
In Capital, Volume One, Macris demonstrated his fascination with the disjecta of contemporary culture, ranging from department store receipts to mind-numbing lists of chocolate confectionery. There is a similar taxonomic impulse at work in Great Western Highway, which includes lengthy descriptions of the billboards blighting Parramatta Road and elaborate catalogues of the junk food sold by the dingy shops that Nick walks past. There are also detailed summaries of the television programs that the channel-surfing couple end up watching at Penny’s place – and, specifically, two movies: The River Wild (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997). This ought to be boring, and it is – especially if the reader has a level of interest in those particular films approaching that gargantuan zero Nick saw in the earlier chapter. No doubt Macris is making a point about the dull repetitiousness of modern life, the unavoidable tedium of familiar relationships. It is doggedly realistic. But like being stuck in traffic on Parramatta Road, it is the sort of realism that one could do without.
After the two movies, the couple’s televisual attention turns to the current affairs program Lateline, which features the host Kerry O’Brien interviewing the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. This is the centrepiece of the novel: an interior monologue of the Iron Lady’s private thoughts as she answers a series of barbed questions. The model here, Macris acknowledges, is Molly Bloom’s nocturnal soliloquy in Ulysses, though his imaginary Lateline interview is inspired by one that actually took place in 1995. One might hazard a guess that Australian readers will fail to recognise many of the personages floating down the Thatcherite stream of consciousness. The much praised ‘Keith’, for instance, is the former Cabinet minister Keith Joseph – not exactly a household name in inner western Sydney. Moreover, the fictionalised Thatcher occasionally sounds unconvincing, not least because she appears to muddle a few facts, such as the names of Soviet and American ballistic missiles. For what should be obvious reasons, her rambling political apologia lacks the demotic beauty of Molly Bloom’s reverie. At times, this section of the novel becomes as exasperating as the extended plot summary of The River Wild, and it’s a relief to get to the end.
The narrative then goes into chronological reverse, with an insomniac Nick remembering the time he spent in London five or so years before. This chapter opens with his then girlfriend permanently decamping from their bedsit. In response, the depressed Nick can do virtually nothing else but watch the First Gulf War unfold on television. Here is the essential postmodern experience of international conflict – not as combatant, not as victim, but as mediated spectator. Macris expertly recreates the strange sensation of watching the live coverage of Baghdad’s bombardment. For Nick, this imagery of destruction – especially the grainy footage of so-called ‘smart bombs’ obliterating their targets – is mesmerising but curiously unmoving: ‘these images of precision bombing are seamless, without even a hairline crack that might allow some emotion to slip through.’ Nick exemplifies the moral complexity of our attitude to such conflicts – how we might be outraged, fascinated and indifferent all at the same time. But his shock is genuine when later broadcasts show the carnage on the road to Basra, after the Iraqi forces fleeing Kuwait were annihilated by Coalition airstrikes. As in La Route des Flandres, war is presented in Great Western Highway as deeply shameful – even in victory. Fittingly, this section of the novel is called ‘Highway of Death’.
Any lover of serious fiction who notices the books other commuters on the bus are reading cannot but be filled with despair. The problem is not that so many people now read trash, because that may well always have been the case. It is that the publicity machines are now so ruthlessly efficient in promoting this trash that the entire notion of treasure has become occluded. In bygone times, experimental writers did their best to stop the house of fiction from turning into an Augean stable. The great innovators, from Joyce to Simon, offered a sort of sanitation service – cleansing the doors of perception, purifying the dialect of the tribe. This is also what Great Western Highway seeks to do. For good reason, Macris uses his full quiver of unorthodox techniques to pierce any familiar sense of reality, just as he introduces a range of linguistic ephemera – emails, journalese, advertising claptrap – to remind the reader that words can’t be trusted, especially in the novel, the most mendacious of art forms.
Above all, Macris has given us a novel that recognises its own status as a commodity circulating in a market economy. Perhaps Great Western Highway should be considered not as a boulevard but as a ring road, looping back on itself. In the opening scene at the ATM, Nick witnesses the tantrums of a twenty-something couple, who then speed off in a flashy sports car marked with the insignia of ‘Rick Damelian BMW’. For those who remember, Rick Damelian was one of Sydney’s most prominent car-dealers during the last decade or so. His glitzy showrooms were dotted along Parramatta Road. At the novel’s end, Nick and Penny stumble upon a Rick Damelian dealership, its luxury vehicles promoted with those annoying one-word slogans that marketing gurus seem to relish – abstract nouns like ‘Passion’ and ‘Commitment’, exactly the words lacking from Nick’s amatory discourse with Penny. The couple even see their own harrowed faces reflected in the windscreen of a gleaming Lamborghini. But there’s a subtle irony here: after months of financial turmoil, Rick Damelian filed for bankruptcy in November 2012.