Picture Trent Dalton sitting on a Brisbane street corner. A typewriter on a folding table in front of him, a hand-made sign stuck to it, upon which is written the words, ‘sentimental writer seeks stories’. Here he is, the most bankable Australian writer of the decade: a storyteller on the street, a man on the tools, a displaced sentimental bloke trying to make sense of twenty-first century life. And this is how he wrote his latest book, a work of non-fiction called Love Stories, the title of which is self-explanatory. Dalton has kept the ecstasy and epiphany dials turned to eleven since the release of Boy Swallows Universe in 2018 – and Australian readers love him.

Boy Swallows Universe and its follow-up novel, All Our Shimmering Skies (2020), have each sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Boy Swallows Universe is apparently the fastest-selling Australian debut novel ever published. An adaptation for the stage at last year’s Brisbane Festival sold out three times. Love Stories will probably break a few records of its own. In March, Netflix Australia announced that it had commissioned an eight-part series based on Boy Swallows Universe. Dalton is a hot ticket at writers festivals and other public events. He’s big news on Goodreads and he seems to be on affectionate terms with half the journalists in the country.

It’s hard not to be dazzled by the commercial success of Dalton’s books – and unlike other big-selling Australian authors, Dalton’s writing has been listed for prestigious awards. Boy Swallows Universe was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2019. At the NSW Premier’s Prizes, it won the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, the People’s Choice Award, and was shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. Reviewers have been kind too.

Dalton insists that it’s ordinary readers who matter to him, not these literary accolades, and anecdotes about converting non-readers to books are a staple of his frequent media and festival appearances. There are blurbs from reviewers on the back of my copy of Boy Swallows Universe, but the inside covers are jammed with quotes from these ordinary readers, like Michelle: ‘Wow! Woman’s Mind Blown. Absolutely loved it.’

If Dalton’s novels are contemporary classics, as many headlines declare they are, if he’s a national treasure, as blurber Annabel Crabb insists he is, does this roaring success have anything to tell us about contemporary Australia? This is a question that critics and reviewers have been reluctant to broach. The more I read Dalton’s fiction, though, the more convinced I am that he is the definitive novelist of Scott Morrison’s Australia (Boy Swallows Universe was published just a few months before Morrison was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2018). Dalton is an exuberant and optimistic writer, yes, but his novels promulgate a deeply conservative vision of nationhood and identity. Dalton’s characters get by on grit and resilience. The state is a joke and so are its representatives. History and trauma, lived experience and cultural difference: they all get swept into a totalising vortex of universal humanity. Black, white, rich, poor, we’re all essentially the same, you see, and love is all around us – but it’s got nothing to do with politics or morality or sex. If you want to meet kids who are willing to have a go to get a go, Boy Swallows Universe is a great place to start.

The narrator and protagonist of Boy Swallows Universe is a gutsy adolescent named Eli Bell who is growing up in the suburbs of Brisbane in the 1980s. Eli shares a name with the Abrahamic prophet Elijah and the divine voices whiz through him. He’s a kid who never shuts up, never sits still, never waits a minute to order his thoughts. Blocks of vernacular descriptive prose are broken up by ecstatic streams of consciousness riddled with mystical fragments, repetitions and aphorisms. Eli is a charismatic narrator, which is useful, as this book is as much about character, about strengths and virtues and decisions, as anything else. There is a great deal of plot in Boy Swallows Universe that I will not attempt to summarise. Suffice it to say that Eli’s adolescence is nasty, brutish and hundreds of pages long, and that he emerges with his faith in love, storytelling and destiny intact.

To deliver his lesson about the capacity of good people to outrun trauma, Dalton relies on crude contrasts. Eli must scramble through several actual and figurative passages lined with excrement, mud and other muck, in order to reach his fated destination, which is associated with well-lit open spaces. In a memorable early scene, Eli and August find themselves stuck in a tunnel beneath their home; the exit is via an outdoor dunny. Once the toilet seat is raised by their angry stepfather Lyle, light shines down on the boys, who eventually realise that their only option is to crawl through shit and cop a beating on the way out. As they weigh up the alternatives, Eli recalls the time Lyle locked his mother Frankie, a heroin addict, in a room to stop her using. Frankie emerges from her dank chamber clean and wise, Eli and August get out of the sewer, and Eli overcomes the obstacles of his childhood. Crawl through shit, reach the light.

This motif is picked up again in All Our Shimmering Skies. There are many continuities between Boy Swallows Universe and All Our Shimmering Skies. Both novels track a traumatised adolescent protagonist who, in spite of being well-read in the Anglo-European canon, retains a faith in human goodness. Violent, toxic men drive their plots. Ethnic stereotypes abound. Holy fools and diamonds in the rough provide mystical and moral instruction. Mothers are idealised; fathers are demonised. No one is much interested in sex.

There’s more, and I’ll get to it, but I can’t sidestep the lurid and outrageous denouement of the two novels. How lurid? Well, no spoilers and all that, but a madman’s secret underground-lair-cum-laboratory features prominently in the resolution of both plots. An underground laboratory is a recurrent motif in another Australian fiction bestseller, Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series. The Treehouse books, all farts and bonkers explosions, are rightly classified as juvenile fiction.

All Our Shimmering Skies is a quest narrative foisted upon a ‘gravedigger girl’ named Molly Hook, who must overcome several challenges as she flees a psychotic uncle and the bombing of Darwin. This novel is narrated in dilatory free-indirect discourse, most frequently but not always focalised through Molly, who, like Eli, is coming of age the hard way. Molly believes a curse has been placed on her family by an Aboriginal man named Longcoat Bob. Tom Berry – Molly’s grandfather, a luckless prospector – got lost in the bush and was saved from certain death by a small Aboriginal community led by Longcoat Bob. He gained the trust of the community and discovered them to be custodians of a cache of gold. Gold! Tom Berry steals this gold, nicks off, becomes rich. Longcoat Bob leaves his community, travels to Darwin to curse Tom Berry and his descendants, and sets in train the events that make Molly’s life such a misery. Molly must find Longcoat Bob and persuade him to lift the curse.

Longcoat Bob, to whom magical powers are attributed, has the name of a pantomime villain. Indeed, many of the characters in All Our Shimmering Skies have a panto quality, in that they are burlesque versions of familiar racial stereotypes. For an example, we might look to Yukio, the Japanese fighter pilot who crashes outside Darwin and falls hard for Greta Maze, a tart with a heart from central casting (real name Greta Waltraud Baumgarten; ‘nobody wants to see a Kraut name up in lights’).

All Our Shimmering Skies presents Tom Berry’s betrayal of his Aboriginal hosts and exploitation of their resources as a kind of allegory of settlement and the extractive industries. But this Tom is a benign representative of settler colonialism, an innocent abroad who only turns bad when tempted by gold. The tangle of plot conveys something of the conflicted treatment of race and settlement in Dalton’s fiction. Because Dalton and his young leads are so determined to find the good in everyone, which is to say, to offer them opportunities for redemption, reform and indeed transcendence, they sanitise racism, cruelty and violence. In All Our Shimmering Skies we’re given a mawkish version of reconciliation that basically involves finding aspects of settlement to celebrate – and no basis whatsoever for land rights or reparative justice. Instead we are presented with facile set-pieces in the form of campfire scenes that bring together Yukio the Japanese pilot, Greta the young woman of German heritage, Molly the orphaned teen, and her handsome Aboriginal friend Sam, as they discover their common humanity with bombs exploding in the sky. These are lessons for a mid-century Sunday school, utterly inadequate to the kind of contemporary nation-making narrative that Dalton and his publishers seem to think he’s written.

If there is one point on which Dalton’s many admirers and I agree, it is that he has a distinctive prose style. Where we disagree is on whether it’s any good. Across his books, fiction and non-fiction alike, Dalton’s prose is energetic, rhythmic and relentless. Dalton and his narrators are unapologetically sentimental – militantly so, even – and boy do they love an aphorism. This is a textual persona afflicted with logorrhea, eyes always glistening with emotion. Anaphora and parataxis prevail. Eli and Molly never say anything once when they could say it, or sing it, five times. Neither does Dalton. The effect is sometimes incantatory, and as such I suppose it does offer a break from the laconicity with which Australian tales of hard knocks are habitually delivered. Here’s a passage from Boy Swallows Universe selected more or less at random, just after Eli loses a finger to a crime boss:

My eyelids close and open. Life and the blackness. Home and the blackness. My lucky fingers with the lucky freckle resting on the table in a pool of blood. Eyelids close. The blackness. And they open. Tytus picks up my fingers with a white silk handkerchief, folds it up carefully. Eyelids close. The blackness. And they open.

By this point we’ve already heard a great deal about that lucky freckle, and we’ll hear a lot more about the lucky finger as the book rolls on. Similar rhythms carry a screen-ready description of Darwin in All Our Shimmering Skies:

The Darwin sunset is gold then red then purple then black. The town is corrugated-iron fortress homes that fall with a sneeze. Dirt for roads and dirt for air. Cyclone-ravaged for a century. Architectural impermanence. Darwin dreams in sun-golds and earth-browns.

Like so many greenhorn protagonists, Eli Bell and Molly Hook have to learn a few lessons in order to mature. Quite a few of these life lessons are about storytelling. Eli grows up to become a journalist, as Dalton did, and he learns how to spin a yarn from Slim Halliday, an ex-con famous for his prison escapes and remarkable for his cheery homilies about prison life. Slim’s instructions for writing a letter to an inmate serve as a gloss on Dalton’s fiction and journalism:

‘Don’t forget to be specific,’ Slim always says. ‘Details. Put in all the details. The boys appreciate all that detailed daily life shit they don’t get any more. If you’ve got a teacher you’re hot for, tell ’em what her hair looks like, what her legs look like, what she eats for lunch. If she’s teaching you geometry, tell ’em how she draws a bloody triangle on the blackboard. If you went down the shop for a bag of sweets yesterday, did you ride your pushy, did you go by foot, did you see a rainbow along the way. Did you buy gobstoppeds or clinkers or caramels? If you ate a good meat pie last week, was it steak and peas or curry or mushroom beef? You catchin’ my drift? Details.

The details are fairly crammed into Dalton’s books. Some of them turn out to be plot points, others are red herrings, and many of them become leitmotifs. The surfaces of Dalton’s prose are refractive, dazzlingly so, and thus prevent access to the inner lives of his characters and the structures of their worlds. This, essentially, is a form of reporting. Eli is told by the ferocious newspaper editor Brian Robertson that he was ‘born a colour writer’. It’s not a compliment. Robertson continues, ‘The sky was blue. The blood was burgundy. Alex Bermudez’s bike that he rode away from home on was fuckin’ yellow. You like all the little details. You don’t write news. You paint pretty pictures.’ Dalton himself, it should be recalled, is a colour writer, and was winning awards for feature writing years before he turned his hand to fiction.

Eli’s Dad also has a bit to say about style: ‘Eli was born with the two qualities of any good storyteller – the ability to string a sentence together and the ability to bullshit.’ I’m not sure this assessment holds for Dalton. There’s bullshit aplenty, but the sentences are not so much strung together as shoved into place. Images, clauses and sentences sit alongside each other without connectives, and the reader is left to do the work of making sense of them. Like life – and bullshit – it just all piles up.

Dalton’s style calls attention to itself, but the pleasures it offers are superficial. The signposting of literariness has something in common with the frustrating skeins of literary allusions that are threaded through Boy Swallows Universe and All Our Shimmering Skies. Where to start? Molly is a precocious reader, thanks to her mother’s influence. She flees Darwin with a duffel bag stuffed with tinned food and the collected works of Shakespeare. There are many references to Hamlet in All Our Shimmering Skies, and particularly to Ophelia, but I can’t for the life of me cobble them into any coherent reading. Is Molly’s mother, who took her own life, Ophelia reborn in Darwin? Probably not. Is Ophelia a cipher for women and girls who are doomed by the violent, selfish men around them? Possibly. Maybe Molly Bloom can help? Has the soul of Hamlet transmigrated into the body of Molly the gravedigger girl who talks in riddles? Huh? The abundant literary references certainly signal the ambition of the novel to be read as a serious work of literature, but they do little more than reinforce the characterisation of Molly as a bookish kid.

Eli Bell doesn’t lug around a heavy bag of books, but he too is surrounded by literature. His canon is mainly twentieth century, mainly male, mainly modernists, and mainly fiction. Unlike the intertextual practices of James Joyce, for example, to whom many stagey nods are directed, the allusions that pepper these books serve no significant stylistic or thematic end. It’s just more stuff that accumulates, like all those noisy, colourful details. Books are a form of cultural capital, and by making Molly and Eli cart them around, Dalton suggests they have a privileged vantage point, no matter how trite their observations. The literary references work in a similar way, to assure readers that all these whizbang prose effects aren’t just silly gimmicks; they’re the stuff of capital-L Literature.

If Dalton’s prose style skims the surfaces of his characters’ lives, so does his thinking about the moral and political world. Dalton infantilises his audience by feeding them palatable maxims about history, society and human flourishing. The themes are repeated again and again in case the rowdy kids up the back aren’t paying attention. Good things happen to good people. You can’t control everything. Fortune favours the plucky. You get over stuff. Everyone has some good in them. All you need is love. Everything. Will. Be. OK. This is all easy to swallow, but the treacle doesn’t just override irony, it clogs the gears of reality, presenting instead a national domain in which no obstacle is too great for an earnest and well-intentioned individual to overcome on their own. There is seemingly no ill in the world that can’t be sentimentalised by Dalton: prison life, addiction, violence, colonialism. There is no insight into contemporary life here, just fantasy built on nostalgia and dishonest nationalism.

It’s well known that Boy Swallows Universe draws on Dalton’s childhood experiences, that Dalton, like Eli Bell, found safe passage through a violent and traumatic childhood and became a journalist at News Limited. Dalton’s story is exceptional and Eli’s coming of age reads like a fairytale, not because of the supernatural embellishments, but because of its sheer unlikelihood. For certain readers, it is no doubt reassuring to learn of individuals who have overcome the obstacles of trauma, poverty and social marginalisation to attain the markers of middle-class success. This fairytale, in which a kid hauls himself up by his bootstraps through strength of will and character, relies on and reinforces pernicious and demonstrably untrue ideas about poverty and social marginalisation – namely, that it requires nothing more than effort to get out of it. There’s a mountain of empirical research that shows this proposition to be false.

Dalton’s people make their own luck; all the better if they’re autodidacts. Teachers are treated with scorn, none more so than goody two-shoes Mrs Birkbeck, the school counsellor in Boy Swallows Universe, who tries to intervene in the chaotic lives of Eli and August. The ideology of the novel harmonises with the songbook of News Limited: the state is an ineffective guardian of the poor and has no role to play in supporting social mobility or addressing structural disadvantage.

The theme of national unity is sounded proudly in All Our Shimmering Skies, which aspires to the standing of a national epic, one in which settlers and Aboriginal people find common ground under a shared sky. The stories of Molly Hook, Greta Maze and Yukio entwine with First Nations stories told by Sam about Country. And yet these different ontologies merge into pastiche that yields the same kinds of shallow ‘truths’ as Boy Swallows Universe. There are many scenes in the book that open up questions about ancestral connection to land. Try this:

The stillness of this cemetery, this sun-baked dead collective. Dry season Darwin and every tree in the cemetery wants to burn. Darwin stringybark eucalyptus trees leaning over graves so old their owners can’t be identified. Woollybutt trees and their fallen and dead orange-red flowers surrounding each trunk like fire circles, growing in gravelly soil for fifty years and climbing as high as the shops on the Darwin Esplanade. Wild weeds and grasses creeping over memorials to carpenters, farmers, criminals, soldiers and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. Kin.

If there is a role for First Nations people in Dalton’s national epic, it is to advance the plot. The people ultimately brought together under the shimmering skies are settlers. Sure, All Our Shimmering Skies wants a warm and fuzzy reconciliation – but it doesn’t want to recognise the violence of settler colonialism and its legacies. Dalton’s reverential 2020 feature on the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s voyage to Australia for The Australian was titled ‘The Story of Us’. The group hug of the first person plural ignores the particulars of lived experience and dispossession, binding this fictive ‘us’ instead by a set of sentimental adages. For all Dalton’s emphasis on details, he is so committed to telling us what people have in common that he denies the deep chasms of history.

Does all of this miss the point? After all, Boy Swallows Universe and All Our Shimmering Skies are books that set out to enchant their audiences. They are romances, big stories that scramble breathlessly at the precipice of the allegorical, stories stuffed with heroic adventures and wild digressions, stories that come to a satisfying moral resolution, often with help from the supernatural. Romances invite emotional responses and deeply felt connections to characters like the Bell brothers and Molly Hook. If you scour Goodreads pages or Dalton’s Twitter feed, you’ll find fulsome declarations of attachment to these kids.

But romances don’t just work to bewitch their readers; they never have. They are also instructive texts that naturalise and reinforce a set of existing values, whether that is a hierarchical world view with knights at the top and peasants beneath them, or the desirability of heterosexual marriage. To ignore the seductions of romance is to ignore a vital dimension of Dalton’s novels and his mass market success.

Dalton’s sales have been so great that the aesthetic value of his work has been taken as self-evident. His consistent ideological commitments have been ignored. This, broadly, is symptomatic of a historical moment in which cultural value is conflated with market value. If the current federal government has any interest in arts policy, it is to pull levers to encourage artists and arts organisations to build their audiences, increase their revenue, find quantitative ways to measure and demonstrate their success. In this context, to issue a challenge to the literary value of works that are commercial and popular is to court charges of elitism and naivety. After all, the market’s judgment of Trent Dalton’s career has been forceful. For a literary novelist to sell a thousand copies wouldn’t be a bad run; Dalton’s books sell by the hundreds of thousands.

This should mandate close attention. If criticism has any purpose, it is to assert systems of value beyond those decreed by the market. In Dalton’s case, this simply hasn’t happened. There has been precious little critical engagement with his work, by which I mean sustained reflection on the work itself, not Dalton’s charismatic public persona or his great successes. If it would be dense to dismiss the connection between Dalton and his readers, it would also misrepresent the reception of his books to omit the troupe of journalists and public figures, many of them associated with News Limited, who have boosted Dalton as a cultural celebrity and provided him with an entirely uncritical platform. There have been some short reviews, and most of them have been positive, but no close reading of a set of books that have been an unassailable presence in Australian culture for the past five years.

This is not altogether surprising. Australian critics tend to steer clear of commercial fiction, in part, I suspect, because of good old-fashioned snobbery, and in part too because of the readiness with which charges of elitism, punching down and disconnection from everyday Australia are thrown. When Dalton waxes lyrical about ordinary readers, he sounds like he’s trying to distinguish them from a fantasy cohort of uptight critics. When he gets going about fan mail from tradies, he sounds like Scott Morrison. And so the difficult questions about representation and cultural appropriation that are asked of literary authors as a matter of course have not been raised in relation to Dalton’s fiction. Culture warriors love to stoke fantasies of a woke elite ready to cancel popular authors for minor infractions; the enthusiastic embrace of Trent Dalton, the biggest author in contemporary Australia, surely reveals this to be paranoia.

The sales of writers like Liane Moriarty or Matthew Reilly approach Dalton’s (or in the case of children’s authors like Aaron Blabey and Terry Denton, exceed them) – but they have not achieved a comparable cultural visibility. To call into question the literary value of Dalton’s fiction is not to disqualify the pleasure and imaginative release that hundreds of thousands of readers have found in his novels, especially Boy Swallows Universe; it is to take that popularity seriously. These fictions, girded by a fundamentally conservative and nostalgic ideology, have thrived in a historical moment of plague, fire, flood and violence. I’m sure not everyone who loves Eli Bell voted for Scott Morrison or will do so again, but the trajectories of Eli and Molly Hook resonate with Morrison’s world view, which minimises the impact of trauma, violence and poverty on individuals and communities, and leaves it to individuals to overcome the obstacles in their way. In his fiction Dalton refuses to acknowledge that there’s anything structural about the suffering his characters must endure. There’s no room for the state to do good in this world and there’s none in Morrison’s either. If such a damaging fantasy must sit at the heart of our cultural life – and Dalton’s blockbuster fictions surely do have a claim to such centrality – then let us at least recognise the politics that drive the fantasy for what they are, lest we cede all notion of value to the market.