The Magpie Wing
by Max Easton
Published September 2021
In Mark McGurl’s history of creative writing instruction, The Program Era (2009), he discusses the institutional dominance of ‘the Jamesian “scenic method”’. The scenic method, as he notes, is usually described by ‘the dictum “show don’t tell”’ but might be productively rephrased as ‘dramatize don’t generalize’. The scenic approach prizes ‘the aesthetic benefits of subtraction, as in the example of Flaubert, whose greatness is measured as much by what he left out as by what he put in.’ This intentional withholding of information is associated with modernist modes of parataxis, mostly famously exemplified in Hemingway’s short stories and latterly in US writers like Grace Paley and Raymond Carver known for their economy of style. For McGurl, the scenic method has become constitutive of contemporary notions of literary critique and ‘craft’. Good writing, as far as most of our literary institutions are concerned, is paratactic writing that refrains from being too direct.
Max Easton’s The Magpie Wing signals its break with the scenic method in its opening paragraph:
There are some players on the rugby field who require protection. If a balance is to be maintained, then someone else on the field needs to be their protector. That relationship has all kinds of complexities; both the protector and the protected become informed by each other’s presence, and over time it becomes unclear exactly who’s there for whom. This is true in a game like rugby league, but it has worldly parallels too: there are just some people out there whose existence is validated by the role they’ve been assigned.
If this paragraph were written according to the scenic method, then everything after the first two declarative sentences would be deleted as unnecessary explication best left for the reader to infer. The subtext here is evacuated because the narrator makes clear that the protector-protected relation is not simply binary (it ‘has all kinds of complexities’) and that it signifies something much more than just rugby because ‘it has worldly parallels, too’. What’s subtracted is subtraction itself: everything is on the surface. From the opening, the reader is on notice that this novel will not withhold explication, that it will not practice literary subtlety, that – quite simply – it is not interested in the ‘rules’ of good taste.
The Magpie Wing is a novel that follows its principal characters – Walt, Duncan, and Helen – from their teens through to their mid-30s. They all grow up in Western Sydney obsessed with rugby league, but Helen and Walt leave for the inner city and its indie rock and writing subcultures. The novel’s rejection of literary good taste is explicitly dramatised in a hilariously funny scene when Walt reads the ‘contents of his spam folder’ at a poetry event in attempt to pass off ‘gibberish as meaningful art’; he is surprised to discover that his performance attracts the attention of a small publisher who has just received Australia Council funding. They are interested in Walt because he is from Western Sydney, and wonder if he’d ‘write something about it’ but in ‘your style, of course’. Walt responds by writing an ironic manifesto for Western Sydney, which he terms The Cumberland Plain: ‘We reject the notion of Western Sydney, which is to say that the area is west of what’s important. We prefer to insist that Sydney City is east of interesting’. The always-explicating narrator tell us that the manifesto ‘was a mockery of his publisher’s generosity and the Australia Council funding process that gifted him the honour of publication’, but his would-be publishers are mostly puzzled. They reject the manifesto because they don’t understand ‘the tone of its work, nor its intent’ but also note that ‘his writing is sloppy’.
The novel’s refusal of subtlety could also be viewed as a punk-rock rejection of the literary fetishisation of technique. Certainly, Walt and Helen both embrace punk’s épater le bourgeois mentality. The novel’s focus on surfaces makes sense in representing a period in life when surfaces are a particular matter for concern, and especially in indie subcultures where fashion, dress, and taste play such a formative role. There are clear precursors to Easton’s approach in so-called ‘alt-lit’, which pushed back against the scenic method and institutional conceptions of literature. Tao Lin’s novels – which often replicate internet chats and focus obsessively on the minutiae of romantic relationships – undermine the scenic method of realism through a hyperrealist attention to detail. Meghan Boyle’s ‘Everyone I’ve Had Sex With’ (2011) presents as a list of completely explicit reflections on her experiences with sexual partners (including statistics!), although its reflections on consent and its allusion to Tracey Emin’s installation, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995’ (1995) provide a residual subtext. Easton’s work might thus comprise one aesthetic trajectory out of alt-lit (and associated modes in film, such as ‘mumblecore’), which has become increasingly incorporated into literary writing – perhaps most notably in the discursive and often-explicit writing of Sally Rooney.
Another possible meaning for the novel’s love of explication is suggested by the last sentence of the opening paragraph: ‘there are just some people out there whose existence is validated by the role they’ve been assigned’. ‘Valid’ is perhaps the word most emblematic of contemporary regimes of social media rhetoric. It almost always suggests some kind of normative critique that appears substantive, but is wildly imprecise. Valid in relation to what and for whom? In other words, the explicitness of the narrator reflects a tendency in contemporary language – especially on social media – to explicate subtext in an offhand way. The novel sometimes borrows the logic, form, and diction of moralising Twitter threads (the kind of hectoring, passive-aggressive tweets that open with ‘Stop…’, ‘I don’t know who needs to hear this…’, ‘Gentle reminder…’ and so forth). The constant explication in the novel thus reflects its discursive world. The characters in The Magpie Wing are the last generation to grow up before Web 2.0. The mediation of modern life by the internet is depicted in Helen’s teenage use of p2p file-sharing services to download obscure music through to more modern forms of online dating, media-streaming, and ecommerce: ‘You do your dating through Tinder, you watch TV on Netflix, you order food from Uber Eats . . . It’s just the way things are now’. They also form a band based on ‘the late 2000s message-board noise-rock explosion’ called Look@Us, a name that ironically comments on internet culture’s exhibitionist propensities.
The problem is that these stylistic tendencies are not carried far enough. Sometimes the explication feels genuinely awkward: ‘He was soon spinning so many plates that he was unable to see the blatant fact that trying to care for someone wasn’t the same as actually caring for them.’ At other points, descriptions devolve into cliché: ‘On the night of Walt’s reading, Duncan was only introduced to Vicky in passing, but there was a spark when they shook hands. They spent the night catching each other in furtive glances from across the room’. Melinda Harvey has noted that other contemporary literary writers, such as Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard eschew ‘sustained stylistic excess’ and are ‘not to any great extent quotable by the sentence’, so Easton’s writing here is in many ways in step with the times. But even his rhetorically complex passages have rough edges:
Walt was all bone and had no meat on his thighs or chest. His bird-like sternum protruded from beneath his shirts which were always bought oversized in the false hope that he’d grow into them. He was unsettlingly fragile even to look at, as though he could be ground to dust with one careless motion.
We are told that Walt is ‘all bone’, which makes the statement about there being ‘no meat’ on his ‘thighs or chest’ redundant. Similarly, ‘protruded’ seems to repeat the meaning of the ‘bird-like sternum’. And since we know that the hope he will grow into his shirts does not materialise, then there’s no need to say it’s false. Finally, to grind something ‘to dust’ suggests an intentional and repetitive movement (eg. a mortar and pestle), so could it really be done ‘with one careless motion’? None of these sentences are exactly wrong, but each feels one revision away from its realised form. Perhaps Easton’s writing reflects a punk rock desire to play fast and loose and allow the slightly flubbed notes to be part of the sound. But many of the most interesting contemporary writers have responded to the restrictive demands of the scenic method by developing other techniques that push their style in new directions. Although Easton covers thematic territory that is not dissimilar from Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man, the two works could not be more different at the level of the sentence. But it’s also true that many of Australia’s most well-known novelists could generously be described as inconsistent prose writers – and Easton’s work may simply be aligned with an Australian literary tradition that has often been agnostic about the question of style.
The Magpie Wing seems to draw on two recent traditions within Australian literature. The first and most obvious is the energetic mass of writing from Western Sydney, which Easton’s publisher, Giramondo, has played no small role in bringing to national attention. Much of the novel’s dynamism derives from the way in which its characters – particularly Helen and Walt – redescribe the suburbs and culture of the inner city through an outsider’s eyes. This depiction does have ‘all kinds of complexities’ because the inner city for these characters is both a refuge from the limited cultural horizons of working-class Western Sydney, and an inhospitable realm with rigid class hierarchies, expensive rents, and foreign social morays. Walt and Helen, as transplants from the West, are both attracted and repulsed. The novel succeeds as a portrait of Sydney because it depicts this relationship in its contradictions without resolving them. At one point, Walt becomes frustrated by Duncan’s announcing himself as Westie at inner city parties, saying ‘Don’t pretend you’re not trying to ride the coattails of western Sydney oppression’. Later, Walt notes a ‘strange evolution’ of Western Sydney’s ‘social and cultural capital’ as ‘though people liked that he came from Liverpool, which was bizarre to him after years of being spoken down to’.
Even Walt’s alienation from the inner city is subjected to a critical eye in the novel. When he drunkenly recounts his manifesto of the Cumberland Plain to some of Helen’s friends, he finds his ideas challenged after he claims that ‘talking about the identity of western Sydney is a parallel to being Palestinian, or Kurdish, or Catalan, or Quebecois…’. Helen’s partner Suze points out that ‘reclaiming this “Cumberland Plain” term is just more colonial erasure’. She then asks Walt, ‘How can you be a separatist who wants western Sydney to split off from the rest or New South Wales when you live in Marrickville?’ It’s not a particularly subtle moment, but it’s a necessary one that reveals how Walt’s economic critiques can place him in uncomfortable proximity with a politician like Mark Latham (whose infamous handshake with John Howard is described over a full paragraph). But the novel continues to push these ideas even further when – near the end of the novel – Walt moves back into his father’s house, rents out a commercial space that has become vacant during the pandemic, and creates The National Office of the OCPL, an initialism that stands for the Only Communist Party in Liverpool. It’s a quixotic gesture more than a utopian one, and also an individualised rather than communal one that remains deeply ambiguous.
This is no surprise, because Walt’s interest in Marxism has always been more about vibes than dialectics. As a teenager, Walt chases after whatever edgy culture he can find in magazines like Maximum Rocknroll, bands like The Dicks, games like Grand Theft Auto, and books like The Anarchist Cookbook. His interest in communism derives in part from his grandfather’s beliefs, but also fits in with his cultural interests. He finally attends a Socialist Alternative meeting, but instead of ‘discussion about follow-up actions against WorkChoices’ he finds dull conversations ‘using words like “praxis” and “structural analysis” before throwing around previously unheard insults like “Trots” and “tankies”’. Walt hopes that he might find a more authentic political community in the Communist Party of Australia, but after scanning their website and its extensive collection of memorabilia he realises that the party is ‘a fan club’ while also ‘failing to rationalize how he too was a slave to historical figures, wearing a Minor Threat shirt while he scrolled the site in disgust’. Lest there be any confusion, we are then told that ‘He gave up looking for a left-wing institution to find a home in’. However, Walt subsequently founds a communist collective that combines punk-rock culture with deeply eccentric readings of Marxist thought, but he ends up being voted out of his own organisation – aping the most famous joke by the other Marx.
The other Australian literary tradition that the book implicitly evokes is the ‘grunge’ literature of the 1990s. Much of this is because the content of the novel, which focuses on youthful individuation, subcultural scenes, class politics, and a general sense of cultural exhaustion. Easton’s multi-perspectival novel about working class characters from Western Sydney inevitably recalls Christos Tsiolkas’ multi-perspective writing about working-class characters from northern Melbourne, but in tone and structure it’s probably closer to Andrew McGahan’s Praise (1992). While The Magpie Wing is not a heroin novel, it shares McGahan’s macabre sense of humour. Death appears in the novel repeatedly, but the two most significant deaths in The Magpie Wing are surprisingly comic, almost bordering on slapstick. Similarly, the early revelation that Duncan and Walt’s parents had been partner-swapping pushes the narrative forward in unexpected ways that are simultaneously funny and uncomfortable.
As in Praise, Easton’s characters are both romantically self-destructive and strangely adrift, unsure of how to grow up or even what successful adulthood might look like. They share more than a little similarity to the speaker of Ian MacKaye’s punk anthem, ‘Minor Threat’, who sang ‘I might be an adult, but I’m a minor at heart’. To the novel’s credit, this material is generally compelling, even for older readers. Some sections are stronger than others (the chapter on the US band tour relies far too heavily on summary narration, for example) and a few characters (such as Vicky and Suze) can occasionally feel like caricatures. Duncan also largely disappears from the final third of the novel, which feels like a notable absence, but these are comparatively small issues. Where The Magpie Wing departs from the grunge novel, however, is in following the characters into their 30s. That it credibly relates the lives of three different characters over a twenty-year span in 230 pages is a genuine achievement.
The novel ends during the current pandemic in Australia. Sally Rooney’s recent Beautiful World, Where Are You? also concludes during Covid-19 with adults of a similar age who find some sort of solace in domesticity and committed heterosexual relationships, but Easton’s characters have little certainty. Easton communicates this feeling of ambivalence through Helen, who is the novel’s most compelling and fully-realised character. Helen’s story often forms the background of the novel, but the sections where we are in her perspective are the strongest, and generally more interesting than the Max-Duncan agon that the novel’s opening establishes. By the end of the novel, she seems to have found some comfort in her long-term, though non-monogamous, relationship with Suze, but even this is unsettled, which Easton makes explicit in the last line of the novel: ‘she was no closer to knowing what was to be done’. Here, Helen’s uncertainty also ironically alludes to revolutionary communist traditions, incorporating both Chernyshevsky novel What Is To Be Done? (1863) and Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet of the same title.
This is no surprise, since Walt and Helen are never sure how earnest or serious they should be, and their experience of sincerity often yields mixed results: ‘Of all of Helen and Walt’s musical projects, it was a joke band that ended up being the most successful’. When they attempt to take this project more seriously, the band falls apart disastrously on a US tour. Helen – in one of the book’s funniest sequences – tries dating a ‘normal’ man, the so-called ‘domestic god’, Mike. Helen breaks up with him after she opens his copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and finds he has written her name next to the line ‘Beware of martyrdom! Of suffering for the sake of truth!’ After the failure of Look@US’s US tour, Walt – who had previously considered himself asexual – sleeps with a series of men through Craigslist ads. But rather than these experiences creating a new understanding of his identity, Walt states that ‘My gut tells me…that I’m closeted’ and appears to return to a basically asexual existence. While all the characters inhabited clear roles on the field, they struggle to find stable roles in the world, a point that the novel probably makes too explicit in its closing chapter, when Helen notes that ‘her brother was old enough to no longer need a protector’ but ‘could at least use some checks and balances’.
Like Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Easton’s The Magpie Wing is an anxious novel about anxious characters in anxious times. It seeks to register this anxiety in all of its contradictions and complexities, but thankfully does not want to resolve it. The explicitness of The Magpie Wing is counterpoised with deep irony and what Mikhail Bahktin called ‘polyphonic discourse’: rather than creating characters whose viewpoints are clearly correct or clearly flawed, Easton distributes genuine insights among his characters without giving priority to one position. Our readerly sympathies, for example, might reside with Walt, but by the end of the novel, it’s Duncan who seems more stable, cordial, and mature. For all of its explication, The Magpie Wing is more interested in representing different and opposing perspectives than making definitive claims – and this is what makes it a work of art.