New Skin for the Old Ceremony
by Emily Bitto
Allen & Unwin
Published September 2021
Discussing the challenges of setting fiction in his adopted America, expatriate Peter Carey recalled a comment by one of his students: ‘when you change countries you lose your peripheral vision.’ Working up the nerve to take stock of the ‘democratic experiment’ in Parrott and Olivier in America (2009), Carey sensibly muffled any missteps in the picaresque blunderings of two fish-out-of-water nineteenth-century Europeans, a myopic nobleman and his roguish footman. Though it’s 2011 when 22-year old Melburnian Will lugs his backpack from the airport carousel, Emily Bitto’s second novel Wild Abandon adopts a similar strategy: figuring its millennial hipster as a quixotic adventurer, charting the distance between his American dream and obstinate reality for comic juxtaposition.
On his first night in New York, as Will watches ‘the steam shooting up from the subway grates like some Dickensian miasma’, we get a sense of his jetlagged disorientation. But the simile also suggests the novel’s affinity with the Victorian novel, with which it shares not just a focus on social mobility but the use of an omniscient narrator who comments on the action and is not averse to moralising comedy. Hailing from a small town in regional Victoria, Will has been living amongst the cool kids in Melbourne: ‘despite his low origins, he belonged to that association whose documents of membership are cynicism and a taste for unconvention; those possessed of cultural capital, hard-won in his case and amassed with the diligence and utter seriousness that a nineteenth-century dandy might have brought to his education in opera and the delicate wielding of cutlery.’ Despite his cultural ascension, Will is still nursing an inferiority complex, exacerbated by his recent breakup with his girlfriend Laura, whom he is convinced left him because of his embarrassing small-town parents. Impetuously dropping his undergraduate studies, he is embarking on this trip to cauterise the wound and surpass them all, ‘surpass Australia’.
Will’s trajectory is emblematic of a broader compass shift: part of a generation of Australians that no longer hosts a ‘minatory Englishman’, as A.A. Phillips had it, at the back of their minds, he sets his reverent sights not on Britain but America, where ‘culture’ has long signified a broader range. For all Will’s ‘fear of gaucherie,’ he charges through the registers: still constipated from his flight, he experiences ‘post consumption tristesse’; later during a three-way, his thoughts tack between profane pop theories (‘íf you ate pineapple it made your jizz taste better’) and undergrad highbrow (what he learnt at university about Freud and Lacan). Carey gave his nobleman myopia; with the assistance of some locally acquired ‘party parmesan’ snorted from an Altoids tin, Will is a ‘blinkered hurly-burly’ going on ‘its fool somnambulant way’.
He crashes with Paul, a friend of his older brother’s from his hometown who knows ‘the asphyxiating shameful no-culture of his origins’ but is sympathetic to Will’s ‘need to renounce’ them. A chef with an artist girlfriend, Paul grants Will expedited access to a world of exhibition openings and after-parties where, high on the dancefloor, he professes his intention to ‘wed his soul to the American metaphysics. The rocky mountain hymnal; the lonesome howl of the wolf; the pure concourse of the shared trail.’ With his undergraduate reverence for the Great American Novel, Will races around collecting literary references like he’s in a game of Pokémon Go. Laying out the city for his ‘ocular and fiscal consumption,’ Bitto alludes to the ‘wild wag oculist’ presiding over the ash-heaps in The Great Gatsby, where God had already been replaced by an advertising sign. Though Will finds a diner that calls ‘up some prelapsarian New York out of Don DeLillo’s early novels’, he is, like a true Australian, unfashionably late, and any American epiphanies must be purchased. Funnelling his rapidly depleting funds into coke, with ‘the sky going the chemical colour of Cottee’s orange cordial’ he is ‘kindled by a peaking manic vision and felt he was being blessed by the spirit of the solitary quest, sensed the presence of an ancient guide beside him.’ Note that shrewdly-placed signifier Cottee’s: despite Will’s desire for ecstatic reinvention, his provincial heritage won’t be so easily sloughed off. At a party that reminds Will of something out of ‘Bret Easton Ellis,’ a gallery owner asks, ‘do you know that you speak very negatively about your own country?’ It’s a sentence distinguished by its relative understatement, but Will is deflated. ‘Did it make him look like even more of a philistine, because he had succumbed to that most quintessentially Australian malady, the cultural cringe?’
For a brief, reactionary moment Will considers doubling down on his regional identity – a nod to what Phillips called the Cringe Inverted – but he refuses to give up on his American dream. After some orgiastic missteps, he hires a car and flees the city, heading down the ‘post-mythic’ Route 66 into the Midwest, consoling himself with the idea that his ‘romance of fuck-and-run was Kerouacian in both its generals and its particulars’ – though he’d have preferred to have been driving a vintage convertible than a beige sedan, his phone issuing GPS directions in a ‘quaint Australian accent’. Though he doesn’t know it yet, his American odyssey will terminate at Wayne’s Wild Kingdom, a private zoo of exotic animals inspired by the site of the 2011 Zanesville, Ohio animal escape, an event which Bitto identifies as the novel’s inspiration. It’s a prolonged set-up getting there, as though self-conscious about tackling such overtly American material, Bitto realised she herself might be accused of that ‘quintessentially Australian malady’. While it’s not unusual for a work’s challenges to become its theme, Bitto’s second novel has come down with a serious case of what Luke Carman called the ‘baroque inner critic’ that afflicts Australian writers, who must ‘fend off these imaginary accusations before [they] even get started.’
In the novel’s acknowledgements, Bitto uses the same word, baroque, to describe her prose. Dense in metaphor and simile, liberal with adverbs and adjectives, her long, elaborate sentences typically move between a roving pastiche of GAN stylings (Kerouac, DeLillo, Fitzgerald), suggesting Will’s fan-boy emulations and self-conscious hedgings, and a highly mannered, rhetorical voice, favouring antiquated locutions, in which the narrator persona ladles up commentary. Here for instance is Will driving into Littleproud: ‘the town wore a dual visage that displayed concurrent its Janus aspects of embattled decorous dignity and a soft languorous beckoning towards the sweet repose of resignation, though this impression was less than half intuited and more perhaps a product and projection of the viewer himself, for our hero had felt it too – that sweet beckoning – but not succumbed.’ While some passages assume a demotic rhythm, Bitto’s preferred strategy is to wring humour from the chasm between the grandiloquence of Will’s aspirations and his spoken vocabulary of okays, cools and ums (recalling Gerald Murnane’s indictment of direct speech as ‘junk mail’).
Given the minimal American prose style that has been stealthily exerting its influence on Australian prose, the rhapsodic, lyrical register Bitto is parodying feels something of an outdated target (a more germane influence is suggested in Josephine Rowe’s short story ‘Anything Remarkable,’ from her 2019 collection Here Until August, where an Australian woman on a US road trip orders ‘a vegetarian omelette, like a recuperating Alice Munro character.’) And yet setting out in 2011 with a copy of On the Road in his backpack, Will does have literary precedent, recalling another twenty-something GAN-revering Arts undergraduate who made his own cod-Kerouacian journey across the Nullabor in a rusted Nissan Pintara in An Elegant Young Man. Given Carman’s debut was on the 2015 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist alongside Bitto’s The Strays, it’s no stretch to imagine its narrator Luke, striking out from Penrith in what Geordie Williamson dubbed bogan flâneur mode, was a slantwise inspiration for Bitto’s regional Victorian ‘dandy.’
Whether or not it’s the case, the distinctions between Bitto’s weighted satire of the cringe and Carman’s more agile ironies are instructive. Where Carman was auto-fictively implicated in his first-person narrator’s insecurities, Bitto’s omniscient narrator persona habitually reaches over the head of ‘our protagonist,’ creating a chummy complicity with the reader (‘we can forgive him… our hopeful adventurer … our poor downtrodden traveller’) which soon becomes ingratiating. The arch tone is not so dissimilar from that of an affable piss-taker cornering our neighbour at the bar, indulging in a histrionic impersonation and winking at us as he claps his victim on his no-hard-feelings back.
That ‘the cringe’ was just the kind of ‘missile’ which a certain kind of ‘Australian Intellectual … delights to toss at the Australian mob’, was something A.A. Phillips foresaw when he coined the term. Carman dramatizes the condescension, having Luke give the kiss-off to an old kindred spirit from high school: ‘I’ve been to university now … and it shits me to tears because you don’t realise that Australia, the country that you’re supposed to be from, doesn’t have any-damn-thing to do with Kerouac.’ Dramatising the volatile swing of the cringe between reverent imitation and a parochial insistence on the local, Carman clearly has skin in the game; his attitude is one of what Phillips called ‘shared shame’ rather than ‘disdainful separation’. In Wild Abandon, Bitto’s circumlocutory efforts to ensure we know she is not presuming to write a GAN, but is parodying her young protagonist’s desire to star in one (‘though what form that might take – tragedy or drama or picaresque – he did not know’) effect a layer of rhetorical insulation. Her sampling of styles acts as a kind of disavowal, as though the cringe might be quarantined in Will, a ‘twenty two year old man in a state of emotional strife that exacerbated his already entrenched imposter syndrome and his developing pretension.’ Bitto doesn’t just dramatise, but diagnoses and then judges; a case of show and tell, and tell again. How much pleasure you get from all this depends on your tolerance for the dice being so heavily loaded.
It’s worth pointing out that the novels of the American road genre, post Kerouac, were more or less parodic. In his 1960 novel Rabbit, Run, John Updike brought a mock-heroic tone to the trope of a man fleeing a woman’s domestic snares for the imagined freedom of the road, inaugurating a tradition in which the male solipsism of the quest narrative was played for laughs. Recent novelists, extending the tradition into ‘the Trump era’, have strived to more substantially undermine the trope from a female perspective (Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success (2018), the story of a hedge fund manager on the run from his family, features his wife as a secondary narrator; Jonathan Lethem’s Feral Detective put a Hillary-voting woman from New York in the driver’s seat.) While Bitto is concerned with bringing more explicit feminist redress to the quest narrative, she is not writing entirely outside of this tradition for which her frantic allusiveness suggests a qualified respect. You feel the influence in particular of Don DeLillo’s debut Americana (1971), in which the parodic quest novel had already reached its apotheosis: former television executive David Bell making a self-conscious road-trip from New York into the heartland, hoping to squeeze an artwork or a ‘thesis on the essence of the nation’s soul’ out of it, but conceding, in the end, that ‘it was literature’ he was driving through.
Like his author, Will has read DeLillo’s early novels, though with an assiduous literalism. Everything is ‘post-ironic,’ and ‘post-mythic’. He diligently uses his undergrad grasp of cultural studies to parse women’s desirability (a waitress’s glasses fall just-short of elevating her ‘plainness to a sexy Ghost World geek girl look’; another’s woman’s elastic-waisted jeans ‘bespoke a semiotics of frugality’). While pastiche may be a form of disavowal, the cringe cannot be quarantined long: the internalised inferiority complex is soon infecting novelist and reader alike with a sense that as Will’s imitative journey hits and misses the notes, this Australian version must be the daggier, less artful one. Unlike his self-regarding predecessor David Bell, who smuggled the odd insight into his reams of eloquently entertaining bullshit, Will’s revelations are consistently jejune (watching a herd of deer, it occurs to Will he is just like tourists watching kangaroos back home).
Where Bell’s road-trip involved a memory-lane pilgrimage into his childhood, Will’s is interleaved with flashbacks to a regional adolescence mired in familial embarrassment. He is determined not to become like his ‘unwilling infantile’ father, pulling Aikido moves in the garage, ‘harping on’ about how his one overseas trip to the UK was cut short by his wife’s pregnancy. Yet Will is perilously close to repeating history: on the run from ‘his bog –provincial home town, where the Protestant and convict commingled and persisted with enough determination to produce in the 20th century a figure such as his mother and many more like her, abnegant and fiercely plain, repudiative of pleasure and suspicious of ambition.’ Transposing the archetypal flight from Australia onto the flight from female domesticity inscribed by the masculine quest, Bitto oxygenates what might have been a generic parody. Picking up on A.A. Phillips’ description of Australia’s relationship with Britain as ‘umbilical,’ she figures the young colonial nation as a stunted man-child, in the process of changing affinities, from dowdy, smothering Mother country, to America the Land of Libidinal Yea-saying. In an echo of Gatsby’s desire to ‘suck on the pap of life… the incomparable milk of wonder,’ Bitto literalises the metaphor: hooking up for the night with an American woman who lays him down ‘like a child,’ Will looks up at her breasts and imagines he might ‘suckle up all that feminine energy’.
For all his masculine ‘autonomy’, Will is childishly dependent on women. Coming down off his coke high and running low on funds, he seeks refuge with Tamsyn, an acquaintance from his hometown who married a man from the Midwest and is living in Littleproud, Ohio. It’s a pit-stop of convenience; as the narrator intones, ‘women are only bit parts in his narrative’. It is Tamsyn’s husband JT who introduces Will to Wayne Gage, who, seeing his younger self in the Australian, takes a solipsistic shine and gives him a live-in job at Wayne’s Wild Kingdom. Will in turn develops a cautious reverence for this ‘troubled and possibly even dangerous ageing veteran, creator of his own Midwestern Xanadu.’ We expect things to accelerate in an antic Tiger King vein, but Will settles in, the narratorial excesses are reined in a little, and the book evolves into a critique of fraternal bonding (a fug of beer, sweat and late-night jams) that closes the distance between ‘sensitive’ hipster Will, affable man-child J.T. and gun-toting loose-nut Wayne. As the men bottle-feed lion cubs together, Bitto shoehorns in some good old-fashioned womb envy: Will feels a rush of ‘maternal endorphins’.
Having manoeuvred Will from New York, where he swilled champagne and danced with a personal stylist who worked for the ‘one per cent’, to an RV at Wayne’s dilapidated compound in rural Ohio (surrounded by piles of scrap metal that recall those Fitzgeraldian ash-heaps) the novel fulfils the archetypal GAN journey into the ‘authentic’ heartland from which the liberal consciousness has presumably become estranged. With Wayne’s right-to bear-arms-and-own-exotics rhetoric, there’s a definite proto-Trumpian edge to this Midwest Gatsby. Bitto tempers Will’s sympathy for this post-traumatised Vietnam vet with a wariness of the way he leverages his story to garner sympathy. Suspecting his wife has betrayed him, Wayne presses his hand flat against the roof of his van ‘as a drunk man palms a wall to halt the nauseating gyre of the earth.’ Noting something ‘performative’ about this gesture, Will is ‘aware that his sympathies were elsewhere at present than with this man absorbed entirely by his own pain’. Where the cringe stuff can feel like we’re being clobbered over the head by the same joke, the novel’s humour lies in sentences like these, that prise open a gap between Wayne’s ‘all-American’ sentimentality and a more self-deprecating flavour of Australian masculinity. As it becomes apparent that Wayne’s ‘Adamic dominion’ over his animals is also a form of control over his long-suffering wife, he functions as a kind of funhouse mirror, forcing Will to reflect on his own self-pitying Laura-obsessed flight.
That the pursuit of freedom so often entails another’s unfreedom is a zeitgeisty theme, the subject of recent non-fiction books by Olivia Laing and Maggie Nelson. But with Wayne’s menagerie of caged ‘exotics’, Bitto is also drawing on a longer metaphorical tradition, from Augie March’s attempts to train an eagle, to the museum of taxidermied animals, presided over by a Wizard of Oz figure, in Joy Williams’ short story ‘Congress’. Another writer, their imagination piqued by the Zanesville tragedy, might have concluded that the material was too conceptually neat, the metaphoric rightness of it suspect, its stare already fixed. Like a rogue taxidermist crafting a jackalope, Bitto persevered, conjoining her peppy Australian bildungsroman to the carcass of the GAN.
In an interview with Zoya Patel, Bitto expressed surprise that her agent had failed to find a US publisher for this second novel; while her debut, with its Australian setting, was published there to some acclaim. An understandable response; and a reminder that the outward-facing ambitions of being an Australian writer cannot be so easily disavowed. Could the nuances of the cringe have alienated American publishers? And yet the theme was present in Bitto’s debut novel The Strays, which is narrated from the perspective of a woman who as a young girl stayed with the Trenthams, a bohemian family at the heart of the modern art movement emerging in 1930s Melbourne. A ‘cuckoo’ in the nest of the cultural elite, Lily was privy to discussions of national aesthetic identity, of how to be progressive without simply imitating European ideals. Nursing her own petit cringe, she imagined, like Will, that she had surpassed her embarrassingly provincial parents; as an adult she makes the reassessment that the Trentham’s libertarian approach to parenting left their daughters vulnerable to the predations of charismatic men. Published in 2004, Bitto’s debut coincided with a broader Atlantic wave of fiction (Rachel Kushner, Claire Vaye Watkins, Emma Cline) spotlighting young girls and women at the periphery of counter-cultural cliques and coteries, and yet its centre of gravity was assured. Inspired by the Heide circle, the artist’s colony at Trentham house beckons to adult Lily and the reader alike like an antipodean Manderley: ‘I still wander in dreams between the pale grey pillars of the lemon-scented gums, the eucalyptus citriodoras, towering out of mist.’ As Bitto assembled her metaphors and similes from the mundane stuff of an Australian childhood (a character with pale skin ‘looks as though they had grown up under a tarpaulin’) the prose assumed a time-capsule purity. Taking a vertiginous leap across national boundaries, and into the contemporary, her second novel demolishes any marketable fantasy of an ‘organic’ tone.
The pastiche of styles in Wild Abandon create a density that might be redeemed by critical rationalising, but reading the novel can be an estranging experience. As Bitto careens between earnestness and hamming, the broad umbrella of satire enables a kind of plausible deniability: any aesthetic potholes are deliberate, an antidote to the unthinking momentum of the GAN. At the thematic level, there’s a similar feeling of disavowal. Deferring his coke come-down and running from consequences, is Will’s trajectoryan allegory for late capitalism or a satire of one? ‘Who is he, then, this fresh and vulnerable protagonist of his own life, this end-times tourist of the falling West, fitting his own desperate headlong to the desperate headlong world and yet, and yet, so filled despite himself with the pheromonal drug of sweet young hope?’ The arch tone seems to have it both ways. Words like headlong dashing end-times and hurtling, are repeated ad nauseum throughout the novel; the repetitions and redundancies may be Will’s own, but the publisher certainly drank the Kool-Aid, blurbing Wild Abandon as ‘a headlong tumble through the falling world of end-days capitalism.’ The range of ‘late capitalist’ experiences Bitto serves up feel more ambience than symptom, as though, to paraphrase John Berryman, dog and tail got up and left behind wag.
And yet isn’t it just this vicarious experience that Bitto is skewering, from Will’s touristic pleasures to his indulgent sobbing as he watches the televised Occupy protests unfolding in Zuccotti Park? As Carey has suggested, Australia has long used America to signify vulgarity and assume the moral high ground. Such ruses are harder to sustain in a globalised era of conspicuous consumption, and Will’s touristic gaze is ultimately a call to look in our own backyard. But there’s a limit to doing this slantwise, with just the light refracted back through the looking glass to go by. Bitto’s colonising metaphors are the closest she can get to hinting that the cringe, Will’s perception of the ‘asphyxiating no-culture of his origins,’ is a consequence of the violent process of colonisation, and betrays the ongoing devaluation of Indigenous culture. Short of forcing the point, Bitto adds a touch of narratorial editorialising; ‘he walked in thrall to this appropriated dream of primitivism.’
What is more loudly, avowedly Australian about the novel is its moral arc, as Will’s attempts to elevate himself above his fellow antipodeans attract the gods of hubris, leaving him ripe for a comic deliverance à la Sarah Kendall’s origin-denying expat Sammy, in her television series Frayed. Bitto’s correction, when it comes is graver. The novel rushes toward its inevitably tragic denouement, and a scene-of-the-disaster walk-through that weds the forensic gravity of a HBO crime documentary to the ominous scriptural stylings of Cormac McCarthy (‘through the rain-freaked and rivuleted windscreen they watched the fray of men continue all around them and they sat that way for more than an hour as the bowed figures moved among the headlights and the brief but brighter sky-thrown flashes.’)But asWill’s American odyssey is abruptly truncated, it’s Nick Carraway we think of: the disillusioned outsider ‘borne’ back to his home shore at the ‘ragged edge of the universe.’ Might the true enchantment have been not over there, but back here, all along?
Wild Abandon reads like a Künstlerroman by proxy, its subject the self-consciousness of being an Anglo-Australian writer and the challenges of resisting the pull of ‘greater’ cultural centres and finding a ‘natural’ voice. It ends with a Coda; a flashback to Wayne on a solitary posting in the Vietnam jungle. We expect Bitto to come over all Conradian, but there is no heavy-handedness here, no carny-barking narration. Just a ‘shit-scared’ lonely young man at the genesis of his own myth, testing his magnetic powers on a monkey: waiting out its vigilance and gradually winning it over by feeding it ‘piece after piece of the unwholesome bread’ from his hand.