Review: Dan Dixonon Anthony Macris

Love and Market Forces

An essay is both diagnosis and symptom. When placed in a collection, removed from its original context, an essay shifts its weight from the first category – describing the world – to the second – now elevated by its new companions, contributing to the apparition of some grand pattern. Along with the enlargement of the author’s name, from by-line to organising principle, so must the ideas enlarge to justify the new arrangement of material.

Anthony Macris says of his concerns as a writer: ‘I think they basically come down to two: love and market forces. It doesn’t seem a lot does it? At least I’m not just a one-trick pony: I’ve got two!’ The pieces in Macris’ Aftershocks exist at the confluence of this pair of themes. Collected essays and reviews, alongside interviews with and by Macris, span 1996 to 2018, covering a period of global upheaval that is sometimes the author’s subject, sometimes his background. Macris relentlessly chases down his affinities, while the conditions that regulate his work are plotted by the shifts in the economic and social mechanisms that dictate where and how it can be published.

Macris is an unusual figure: an Australian wanting to escape postmodernism’s long shadow, taking on the roles of critic, academic, novelist, short story writer and memoirist. His two novels, Capital, Volume One and Great Western Highway (part of an incomplete saga), are ambitious attempts to convey how the insidious logic of capitalism infiltrates ordinary lives. His memoir When Horse Became Saw describes raising a son who experienced a severe autistic regression.

Aftershocks assembles the artefacts of Macris’ life as a public intellectual in a form distinct from, for instance, collections written around a specific theme like Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning, or those with essays substantially rewritten and expanded, like David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster. Most of the writing in Aftershocks is intended for a specific venue – including the Sydney Review of Books – so to review it as a single coherent object would be both difficult and disingenuous. Most casual readers, I imagine, will explore the pages out of sequence, prioritising their interests and whims rather than reading it from beginning to end as I did for this review.

If a text constitutes an invitation to respond, Aftershocks constitutes dozens of invitations. Of the highest interest here is that the concerns of the collection are often best articulated not by Macris’s writing itself (which, while often astute and engaging, is inevitably uneven) but by its arrangement. On a formal level, the book tells a story about writing as professional work, and how it can (or at least once could) happen in Australia with some success. It also wonders, both explicitly and through its form, what it means for literary writing to survive after what has, always unsatisfyingly, been called postmodernism.

So what, for marketing, reading, and assessing purposes, is the extractable theme, the inference we can make about how the author’s voice might thread the fragments and make them coherent? A log line above the blurb tries to clarify: ‘What comes after postmodernism? Aftershocks.’

Organisation by type and theme takes precedence over chronological order; the book opens with a 2016 essay in which Macris reflects on the early origins of his interest in literature – owing much to the encouragement of a kind and aspirational working class father, who took his children on regular formative trips to the Queensland Book Depot – and ends with a series of interviews in which he considers his methods as a writer, the life in writing he has tried to build. In the context of a collection, these become lenses through which to interpret and read the pieces they bookend.

Introducing the book, Macris remarks that, for a while, he was drawn to the title Personality Crisis. This would have been apt in that it admits the inevitable contradictions that occur when over two decades’ worth of intellectual commitments are placed in sometimes awkward juxtaposition to one another. The chosen title was the right one, however, because aftershocks are disruptive rather than systematic. It describes both the system that Macris is attempting to pin down, and the conditions that generate the kind of writing collected. Macris justifies the book’s title as having to do with the shifting nature of experience in the wake of September 11, 2001, when, following a brief surge of post-cold war Western optimism, lives were suddenly transformed by ‘the inexorable, subterranean forces that have shaped the first two decades of the 2000s, and that have cracked wide open the ground beneath our feet.’ Macris is engaged in ongoing speculation, fixing a permanent eye on the threats of the present with the grim expectation that things will get worse, in quiet hope that they will not.

The book contains seven pieces from the 90s, 46 from the 2000s, and eight from the 2010s (including the four interviews that constitute the book’s final section). Because most of it was written during the Howard/Bush years, to read Aftershocks is to spend time watching Macris from a distance as he contends with questions of political and cultural futures to which we, with a little more history under our belts, have been gifted a single answer: It will be worse than you think. Writing in 2003 in response to a range of literature on the Iraq war, Macris says that ‘We are still yet to see whether good has been done in Iraq’, and, at once prescient and unknowing, asks, ‘can it really be possible that a millennium which started with so much hope and promise now seems so fraught and uncertain?’

Macris is perpetually concerned with how art might grapple with forces too large for its visual field. In the opening and closing sections (‘Essays on Literature’ and ‘Interviews with Anthony Macris’), he reflects extensively on the grand themes that take the focus of his fiction. He tells the Los Angeles Review of Books that he’s ‘always been attracted to big picture issues and how they affect the individual’. He says that ‘Part of the intent of the Capital novels is to bear witness to capitalism’s terrible dynamism, its crushing prevalence.’ In order to properly contend with ‘the complex entity that is global capitalism,’ he decided that realist, modernist, and postmodernist techniques were insufficient, ‘so what I’ve been trying to do is to take the spirit of the modernist tradition, always an internationalist spirit, and to see and speak things that haven’t been seen or spoken before, at least in the form of the novel.’

He prefaces the collection by confessing that despite his fascination with sweeping categories like ‘postmodernism’, to contain the essence of an age to a single word may not be that easy. Many of his reviews are, he has realised, responding to authors who were already writing in postmodernism’s wake, struggling to imagine what could follow. In this spirit, he wonders whether the term is ‘more relevant than ever before,’ or whether ‘things have become so diverse, so fractured, so chaotic, that it’s now impossible to name the times at all’.

A 1999 profile of American artist Cindy Sherman includes the following exchange:

I try to engage her in debate on the more critical reception of her work. For many, postmodernism is a want-it-all aesthetic that claims to critique mass-media stereotypes while riding on their glitz and glamour. I ask Sherman whether this applies to her work. She’s philosophical about it. ‘Look, I don’t even know what postmodernism is,’ she claims with a weary laugh.

Sherman’s answer is the best (or perhaps only) one an artist can give in this context, and it seems the Macris of the introduction knows this better than the Macris interviewing Sherman did twenty years before. And this is how an essay can be transformed by recontextualisation; it provides the reader new opportunities for forgiveness. To read a single-author essay collection that covers such broad temporal and cultural ground as Aftershocks is to commit to an examination of an author’s voice, and to engage in a kind of formal concession, whereby we, as readers, accept that the accumulated works were shaped (or perhaps limited) by the conditions governing their original publication.

The central pillar of Aftershocks is formed by thirty or so book reviews, a sequence that runs just over a hundred pages. The reviews themselves would have seemed sizeable in print, but appear short in this new form (often coming in between six hundred and a thousand words). Nearly all first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald or The Bulletin, and most were published before the inexorable rise of the online think-piece, where space is limited only by a reader’s likely attention span, rather than the room on the page. Accordingly, Macris displays a style less languorous than that of many young critics today. Yet set alongside essays and interviews, where Macris shows himself most at home when engaged in burrowing interrogations, the reviews sometimes impart a sense of incompleteness, improvised remarks that are impressive insofar as they can be made with the assurance of there being no room for further discussion that might expose them as incomplete.

Individually, they are smart, with more space made for description than insight. Sometimes Macris displays flashes of wisdom – ‘if Houellebecq is obsessed with the lack of love in the world, it’s only because he believes that, for a whole host of social and economic reasons, we have learnt to love badly’ – and sometimes he is wrong – praising the prose of Martin Amis, Macris writes: ‘Airplanes don’t leave trails of vapour in the sky: “Their contrails left chalk-marks in the firmament.”’ (Give me trails of vapour any day.) However, en masse the reviews produce a sharp-angled collage that demonstrates how an era shapes a mind and how a mind finds places to push back. As Elizabeth Hardwick writes, ‘It is with some perturbation that one has to learn again and again that the power of external forces is greater than style, stronger than fleeting attitude.’

In a review from 2000, Macris calls Joseph Heller’s final novel ‘A foray into reader-friendly postmodernism,’ and sees the Catch 22 author attempting to recover the commercial and critical success of his debut.

A whole generation of American authors has tried to reconcile the intellectually challenging with the commercially successful, the cannier realising that readers will sometimes swallow their avant-gardist medicine if it is sugared with satire. Barth, Coover, Pynchon, DeLillo and (the much younger) Foster Wallace have all succeeded in keeping a foot in both camps by inoculating their intelligence with large doses of weird, wacky, and just-plain-bizarre. That this strategy has at times had the effect of reducing the novel of ideas to a novelty act may be a cheap price to pay for its survival: at least Americans have some sort of experimental tradition.

I suspect that today we’d be unlikely describe the authors listed here as deploying satire as a strategy of concession to the market, or as being reduced to performing novelty acts. I imagine all of them would take issue with being attributed the puzzling labels of ‘weird, wacky, and just-plain bizarre.’ But the inquiry, although necessarily narrow (a newspaper dedicating a thousand words to a Pynchon novel would be luxurious by 2020 standards), reveals an anxiety about the beginnings of a crisis that deepens as you continue to read.

The review that follows takes us forward six years, the subject Pynchon’s Against the Day. Now in 2006, Macris worries that the ‘risk-averse literary publishing environment’ will mean increasingly fewer grand experimental novels like Against the Day shall be ‘given something resembling mass-market treatment.’ ‘Where,’ he wonders, ‘are the risk-taking novelists of the future?’

Now, in 2020 the successful experimental novel has not disappeared, but it has taken a hit. Look, for example, at last year’s Ducks, Newburyport, the publisher of which was required to crowdfund after its Booker Prize shortlisting forced a print run of 8000 special editions at a cost of £40,000. To read the reviews of Heller and Pynchon, only six years apart – the second published two years before a financial crisis that would further devastate the industry – while reflecting on the further diminished status of literary fiction in 2020 is to see how the goalposts continue to shift in terms of what might be considered a commercial and critical success, and the extent to which market conditions appear increasingly to rule our expectations of what literature can be.

Aftershocks, as a model, tells a similar story about Australian writing. A shift occurs in the 2010s, with the inclusions increasingly having first appeared at academic conferences or in literary magazines. Macris’ serious reviews of writers like Michel Houellebecq and Andreï Makine, of a biography of Francis Bacon, and his lengthy Sherman profile read now as elegies, relics of the past, made possible then by the now extinct Bulletin and a Sydney Morning Herald quite different to the metropolitan newspaper of today. Macris’ career is, over time, channelled towards publications only available or most read on the internet, where niche venues endeavour to redress the collapse of a public space for public intellectuals, whose work in Australia is today treated as a special interest, an indulgence, rather than as a matter of public concern.

In 2015 Maria Tumarkin wrote an essay criticising Australia’s failure to take the essay form seriously, to find value in ‘books which are held together not by a narrative but by a sensibility, or a consciousness, or a voice, or way of moving through the world.’ Part of what such valuing requires is a forgoing of neatness, of consistency. The wondrousness of essays, Tumarkin shows, depends on their amorphousness:

In an essay, you can take something that happened to you, or to the girl / cat / tree over there, and make a larger space for this experience, so that it may connect up with the experiences of others, but also with the flows of history, politics, culture, science. Essays of this kind are usually not written backwards from a generally agreed-on conclusion (poverty is debilitating, refugees are 100% human), or from some unassailable personal truth (my head hurts from smashing it on an invisible glass ceiling). They are written forwards, into the dusky, marshy lands, into outer space.

In his marvellous ‘The Essay as Form,’ Adorno writes that

The essay thinks in fragments, just as reality is fragmentary, and finds its unity in and through the breaks and not by glossing them over. An unequivocal logical order deceives us about the antagonistic nature of what order is imposed upon. Discontinuity is essential to the essay; its subject matter is always a conflict brought to a standstill.

Since Montaigne, this is how essays have worked best. Successful examples of the genre expand beyond the limits of their subject, a fragmented form for a fragmented world, accepting that to give in to the syntactical pleasure that can come with resolution may be at odds with the power of the form.

Montaigne wrote of his own work:

And in truth, what are these essays if not monstrosities and grotesques botched together from a variety of limbs having no defined shape, with an order, sequence and proportion which are purely fortuitous?

Essays find revelation in disorder.

Aftershocks is ultimately sustaining because it permits the reader to observe the disordered evolution of a critical voice, its hits and misses, to see that Macris was given the space to hit and miss. The collection does, at times, suffer for having too light a curatorial touch. It could do without ‘Reading French Literature in a Time of Terror,’ an article written for The Conversation (a venue with a tendency to be unkind to writers’ voices, simplifying the personality out of them) in 2016, responding to the series of terror attacks in France. Macris reminisces vaguely about his time as a youth in Paris and praises the French spirit of critique, but relies for his thesis on sentiment rather than argument, with any perceptiveness deflated by crass universalising (‘This is a France at a crossroads, caught between the historical and ongoing tug-of-war between Europe and Islam’).

But I find myself, as I write, slipping between modes of evaluation. Am I to consider, in response to this book, the individual fragments, frozen in the amber of their era and origin? Am I talking about Macris or his writing? And when I tell you about my inferences as to who the author is, what he is doing, am I talking about the collector looking back over his career, or his many versions on display across the pages of this book?

Macris himself encounters something resembling this dilemma. Towards the end of a review of volume five of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series(among the more recent critical pieces in the book), he admits that, despite having consumed the entire saga up to this point, he is troubled by its totality. ‘Does [Knausgaard] merely provide, ultimately, the illusion of angst, an audience-friendly suffering that has none of the nasty existential side-effects like nihilism and total despair?… It would seem Karl Ove wants his suffering, and to enjoy it, too.’ Macris’ ambivalence is located in an apprehensive suspicion about what the author wants, what he really wants. Because Knausgaard is as present as possible throughout his saga, this question does seem urgent. But no matter the book (for the most part), the child in us is always trying to locate what an author wants, what they want of us.

Foucault wrote that ‘a private letter may have a signatory, but it does not have an author; a contract can have an underwriter, but not an author; and, similarly an anonymous poster attached to a wall may have a writer, but he cannot be an author. In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.’ One purpose the author label serves, in Foucault’s picture, is to permit the exclusion of interpretations that diverge from the author’s intention. Foucault detests our deployment of the authorial persona as an object against which to test the quality of our reading. ‘In short,’ he proposes, ‘the subject (and its substitutes) must be stripped of its creative role and analysed as a complex and variable function of discourse.’

I am sympathetic to this argument, to the deep suspicion that we naively sustain our vision of an authorial persona simply to provide confidence in our own unearned convictions. But to read an essay collection (broadly defined) is to have an author (or the person we imagine the author to be) systematically revealed, each essay providing a new context in which to determine who we think they are, and why we might want to continue reading. That is not to say that this imagined figure must be fixed in the real world. But each essay, more or less gently, modifies your expectations for whatever is to follow and, as that happens, we revel in building the picture, in having it undercut, in getting to know. A collection like Macris’, that breaks the author into pieces, scatters him across time, strips him of context, refigures him against new backgrounds, shows how the irresolvability of such cravings does not make them fruitless.