Review: James Leyon Robbie Arnott

Millenarian Pastoral

If reality can be said to have a genre, that genre is not realism. Reality is dystopian. It is an outlandish disaster movie. It is a sadistic horror story, a terrifying nightmare, a surreal farrago, an appalling farce. It is a poorly written conspiracy thriller, in which the world is run by evil nincompoops who are so smug and lazy they can’t be bothered hiding their corruption. It is like living through Nineteen Eighty-Four and Endgame and Soylent Green all at once, except everyone is trapped in a clown car being driven over a cliff. Reality is many things, but it is not realistic.

A great deal has been written about the turn towards speculative and dystopian fiction that has become such a conspicuous feature of the literature of the Anthropocene. The alarming extent of the environmental crisis we, as a species, have created for ourselves seems to have necessitated this embrace of the fantastic. Faced as we all are with a problem that is not simply altering but threatening the very conditions of our existence, a problem that is now woven into the very fabric of reality, it makes sense as a creative strategy to reach for some kind of elaborate imaginative conceit – not as an escape from reality, but as a way of upending complacent views and forcing consideration of systemic factors.

But there is also an obverse principle at work. The overwhelming nature of the issue has started to have a determining effect on the meaning of art. As the unfolding climate crisis has become an unavoidable subject, it has become the context in which all interpretation must take place. It is the subject that contains all others. Even the simplest human stories are implicated in catastrophic structural conditions. As a result, they acquire mythopoeic dimensions. The most elemental components of reality – earth, air, fire, water – now have an additional symbolic charge. Simple descriptions of landscapes, plants and animals are shadowed by eschatology and elegy. These days even the pastoral is millenarian.

Robbie Arnott’s fiction can be read as an attempt to synthesise a distinct narrative mode and an elemental symbolism that might be adequate to our present moment. His first novel, Flames (2018), was one of the more eye-catching debuts of recent years. It was something of a tyro effort, uneven in its execution, yet clearly the work of a writer with imaginative reach, a vivid sense of detail, and a willingness to try his hand at a variety of styles. Its blend of fanciful concepts and rich natural imagery suggested a loose affinity with contemporaneous ‘cli-fi’ novels, such as Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia (2018) and Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck (2017), but within its pages it was also possible to find elements of Tasmanian gothic, epistolary comedy, hardboiled detective fiction, magic-realism and supernatural horror.

From this unwieldy combination emerged a clear thematic preoccupation with the extremes of beauty and violence that coexist in the natural world. As the novel worked its way through different genres, it adopted a range of perspectives and attitudes. Its ingenuous sense of wonder is perhaps best represented in an extraordinary passage that describes a fisherman hunting tuna with the help of a trained seal – a mutually beneficial relationship that comes to a savage end when the seal is attacked and killed by a pod of orcas. Elsewhere in Flames, birds are cast as ominous portents: a carpenter complains that herons are circling above his property ‘like vultures on the plain’; a psychotic ranger, disturbed by a spate of gruesome wombat killings in which the animals have their eyes gouged out, envisions an enormous black cormorant as a symbol of death. Other chapters experiment with the embodiment of natural phenomena. One relatively light-hearted section is narrated from the perspective of a river god in the form of an anthropomorphised water rat; another assumes the point of view of the lovelorn fire-spirit that possesses the unhappy Tasmanian family at the centre of the novel.

Arnott’s second novel, The Rain Heron, builds on the conceptual foundations laid down in Flames. It is a more confident and focussed work from a writer with a clearer sense of his strengths (he has ditched the detective schtick and the comedy – in both cases wisely, one feels). The story is framed as an ecological parable with a dystopian premise. The result is not exactly the lush fabulism familiar from the work of Angela Carter or Carmel Bird – though there are some stylistic parallels that could be drawn there – but a form of mythical-realism, solidly grounded in Arnott’s vibrant descriptive prose.

The novel establishes its imaginative conceit in a short fairy tale that prefaces the main narrative. The story tells of a solitary farmer, who is hardworking and decent, but unlucky. Her unproductive land is constantly being ravaged by extremes of weather. One day, she is caught up in a wild flood and nearly drowns, only to be revived when a wondrous bird made of water appears. From that day forward, her luck changes. Her farm begins to prosper. She nevertheless remains a humble and generous person, who is grateful for her good fortune and respected by all her neighbours.

Except one. A local boy, whose father’s farm is less productive, envies her newfound prosperity. He suspects the rain heron is responsible, so he takes his knife and goes in search of the magical creature. He finds the place where it roosts, but the bird attacks him as he approaches, stabbing out his eyes with its beak of ice. The boy staggers home with blood streaming down his face. The rain heron departs. The farmer’s fortunes decline once more. When she burns her hand on a shovel that has been left out in the scorching sun, she does not seek medical help and the burn becomes infected. She becomes delirious, takes to roaming her drought-ravaged farm, raving to herself. Then she dies. The boy’s father discovers her body beneath a bare oak tree in the middle of her barren fields.

The story’s generalised fairy-tale form and provocative symbolism leave plenty of room for interpretation. There is no need to detain ourselves with a Freudian reading; let’s just note that such a reading is possible. For the immediate purposes of the novel, however, the most important details are right there on the surface. Its central premise is that the mythical rain heron is real. The motifs of blinding and infection are also repeated in the main narrative, which depicts wounds in a similarly double-sided manner as signs of guilt and victimhood.

But the most significant aspect of the opening story is that it rewrites Aesop’s fable about the goose that laid golden eggs, with some telling variations. In Arnott’s version, the choice between gratitude for the beneficence of the magical bird and interfering with a fortuitous arrangement is given a more dramatic form, as these two options are represented in separate characters. The interference thus comes from an external and malicious source, though the boy and the farmer both end up paying a terrible price for his foolish behaviour, for Arnott’s ‘golden goose’ is not a passive or benign creature.

Because Arnott is a descriptive rather than a discursive writer, most of the burden of meaning rests on the novel’s narrative structure and symbolism, and to a lesser extent its dialogue. Any attempt to explain that meaning thus requires a certain amount of plot summary, so bear with me.

The Rain Heron is set in an unidentified country in which a military coup has recently occurred. The first section of the novel proper (the opening story is headed ‘Part 0’, placing it outside the main narrative structure) is told from the point of view of a woman named Ren, who has retreated into the wilderness. She lives alone in a cave on a remote mountainside, where she subsists by hunting and foraging and growing a few vegetables, occasionally venturing into the lowlands to barter with a fur trader and his son. One day she encounters some soldiers, who are searching the mountainside for the mythical rain heron. Their leader, the efficient and cunning Lieutenant Zoe Harker, questions Ren about the bird’s whereabouts, but Ren denies all knowledge, so the soldiers begin a campaign of intimidation. They poison her water, ringbark the trees, destroy her vegetable patch, throw her medicine into the fire so that her wounded arm becomes infected. Eventually, Ren submits. She leads them to the rain heron. They capture the bird, but as they are preparing to leave the mountain, the lieutenant makes the mistake of peering into the cage and the rain heron lunges at her, plucking out one of her eyes. In her fury, she turns on Ren, shooting her through the neck. The soldiers depart with the captured bird, abandoning Ren to her fate.

The novel then jumps back in time to Zoe’s adolescence. She is living with her aunt in a small fishing village, where the locals earn a decent living by harvesting squid ink and selling it at a premium. Zoe’s aunt initiates her into the secret technique the villagers have developed to lure the squid to the surface by dripping their own blood into the ocean and extract the ink without harming the animals. Then a stranger comes to town, a pushy ‘northerner’, who wants to learn the harvesting technique so that the industry can be ‘modernised’ and the valuable resource extracted on an industrial scale. The locals refuse to give away their secret, but the northerner skulks and spies until he thinks he knows. He tries to harvest the ink himself, but botches it. There is a confrontation, in which the northerner shoves Zoe’s aunt into the ocean and she drowns. Zoe then lures the northerner out to sea with the promise that she will show him the real technique, but when he cuts himself to attract the squid she shoves him into the water and he is dragged to his death by ravenous cephalopods.

These are the bare bones of the first two of the novel’s four main sections, which I have summarised to underscore the point that the first half of The Rain Heron tells the same story three times in a row. Given the furious rate at which we are destroying the natural systems on which our lives ultimately depend, it is not hard to understand or indeed sympathise with Arnott’s desire to reiterate this simple archetypal tale, in which a subsistent relationship with nature is ruined by destructive human impulses (envy, power and greed respectively) and nature extracts its measure of revenge. And the variations are as significant as the repetition. These opening sections are beautifully paced, full of artfully modulated symbolic moments and subtle characterisations that hint at the complicated personal stories that lie beyond the main narrative.

What makes The Rain Heron a restless and rather more ambiguous work of ecological fiction is that it is not satisfied with the seemingly simple and compelling moral lesson that is encoded in the originating fairy tale. Though it does accept the basic validity of that lesson, it sets out to complicate the issue, most conspicuously by placing its main protagonist on both sides of the conflict. Zoe is by turns the aggressive intruder and the defender. When Ren meets her as Lieutenant Harker, she sees someone ‘unmoved by the trees, the air, the staggering slopes and the cellophane streams, the huge and harsh beauty of it all’. Harker is someone for whom ‘the mountain was no different to a car park, an office, the bottom of the ocean; she would use it, take what she needed, burn it down, dance gracefully in the ashes and never think of it again’. Yet this is the same Zoe who is awestruck by the glorious bioluminescence of the squid her aunt coaxes into her boat to gently extract their precious ink – a natural phenomenon as wondrous in its way as the creature of pure imagination at the centre of the novel.

In its second half, The Rain Heron becomes the story of Zoe’s reckoning with this divide within herself and with her culpability in the violence that came before. The third section, which is told from the perspective of the medic who tends to Zoe’s wound and who is prone to nostalgic reflections about his rural childhood, picks up where the first leaves off. The soldiers receive their orders to transport the captured rain heron across the country to an abandoned animal sanctuary. As they travel across an eerily unpopulated landscape, the political context starts to become more significant. Zoe’s growing unease at the prospect of delivering the extraordinary powers embodied in the rain heron into the hands of usurping authorities draws together the novel’s environmental, political and personal themes, her compromised position and her sense of guilt manifesting themselves symbolically in the queasy form of her suppurating eye-socket.

At this point, there is not only a striking shift in emphasis and tone, but a change of genre. The Rain Heron becomes, for a time, a road novel. The cyclical mythopoeic form of the first half is replaced by a linear journey which has as its distant object some form of atonement or redemption. This formal recalibration has the interesting effect of dividing the novel against itself, raising the question of whether its personal, political and environmental themes can in fact be reconciled. The possibility of escape or liberation from a cycle of ruin becomes, in effect, a question of narrative form.

Having confronted us with the violent consequences of the human instincts to dominate and possess, The Rain Heron looks for a way out. And the path it chooses is to tell a story of moral growth. In its final section, The Rain Heron switches from the third-person to the first-person, as Zoe at last becomes the narrator of her own story, completing the novel’s transition from the generality of the mythical to the specificity of the personal. ‘It took me a while to realise that along with my eye, I’d lost a fixed point of who I was,’ she reflects, ‘and what it was about me that mattered.’ But Zoe only loses one eye; she is only half-blind, not irredeemably guilty, not irredeemably lost. In her coming to self-awareness, she arrives at a moment of moral clarity. ‘Things happened before,’ she observes near the end of the novel. ‘I thought I was right but I wasn’t. I wasn’t justified; I wasn’t the lesser of multiple evils; I was just cruel and wrong. And before that, long before – I’ve been wrong for a long time.’

All of this makes The Rain Heron a novel of considerable interest from the perspective of its formal ambition. It is no less interesting for the fact that it does not quite achieve what I think it sets out to achieve. The narrative eventually comes full circle, arriving at a generic conclusion in which atonement and restitution are the order of the day. It is carried to that point by narrative inertia: it is the way such stories of personal redemption are supposed to end. But in reaching for a note of reconciliation it collapses the larger issues raised by the novel into that story of personal redemption. The serious environmental and political questions that frame the novel are not exactly eclipsed, but they are, in a sense, reconceived as Zoe willing herself to overcome an internalised contradiction. If only things were that simple.

The Rain Heron is an exemplary work of popular fiction. People can be a little touchy about such designations, so let me stress that I am imputing no deficiency of craft or intelligence or imagination. Quite the contrary. What I mean, specifically, is that its considerable formal accomplishment is its ability to mould its ideas into a conventionally satisfying shape. It is a richly imaginative work that appeals to a sense of wonder and evokes important themes, but it ultimately remains within established and therefore, in the final instance, reassuring parameters.

In this, The Rain Heron does no more than reflect a deeply ingrained cultural tendency. It is impossible to read of the violent blinding of the envious boy in the novel’s opening pages and not be reminded of Oedipus. It is impossible to read this ecological novel defined by sundered maternal relationships and not be reminded of just how badly we have fucked Mother Earth. Yet it would seem that there are few things that we, as a culture, are more resistant to than the lessons of classical tragedy. There are few things that seem harder to face than the suggestion that human beings are apt to collude with the forces of their own destruction, that there are some crimes for which atonement is impossible, that some courses of action will lead inexorably towards the finality of death, and that we are perfectly capable of leading ourselves to ruin even though we have been warned.