by Amanda Lohrey
Published August 2020
Across her seven novels, Amanda Lohrey has been interested in the role that reading plays in our lives. In her work, reading is always situated: we know where her characters read, how it shapes and is shaped by their circumstances. We follow 1950s Hobart communists from their reading groups to the docks to the courtroom. In a near-future Australia, characters read to find some guidance about how to act meaningfully in the face of political crisis. A woman’s reading of Jane Eyre in a dark Leichhardt terrace scaffolds her life and decisions. Another character reads Madame Bovary on a canal boat, freezing, miserable and surrounded by rowdy teenagers, and finds herself oddly reflected. A city man moves to the bush and reads travel writing about another land stolen, fought over and decimated.
And here I am: a mid-life, mid-career academic reading the most recent novel by a writer I have spent the last few years writing and thinking about, for a book project that is inching towards completion. This is an unusually personal project; up until very recently I wrote mostly about long-dead nineteenth-century writers, or the history of books. My reading of Amanda Lohrey has been shaped by my own circumstances: I was initially drawn to her writing about politics in the wake of a very short career as a political staffer and a fascinated, if confused, spectator to that world. More recently, I read her writing about climate politics and bushfire during the Black Summer we have just lived through, and I read her novels tracking the affective life of masculinity, capitalism and the workplace as I grappled with a family crisis wrought by exactly these pressures.
The Labyrinth is a novel that asks how to keep going in the wake of a disaster that has no neat ending – like most disasters in real life, which are complex and unfolding and entangle us in ways that make the idea of ‘moving on’ or ‘getting over it’ feel impossible. Erica Marsden moves from the city to the small coastal township of Garra Nalla – returning us to the imagined landscape of Vertigo: A Pastoral (2009) – so that she can be within easy driving distance of the prison where her son has been incarcerated for a terrible crime. This is the disaster that Erica must learn to survive.
Even from this short précis, it is evident that this novel continues a movement across Lohrey’s work towards a single point of view. Her early novels are large-canvas, polyvocal works. Reviewers complained that it was difficult to ‘get close’ to her characters. Her mid-career novels balance proximity and distance by alternating points of view between male and female characters. And while her most recent novel, A Short History of Richard Kline (2015), focuses, often uncomfortably closely, on the subjectivity of its protagonist, it retains a feeling of distance and multivocality by shifting between the first and third person.
In The Labyrinth, we arrive at a form that Lohrey has explicitly resisted throughout her career. In 1979, she wrote about the formal development that was seen to epitomise the rise of the ‘women’s novel’ in that period: ‘the biographical novel of the single heroic female self’. She expressed concern about this increasingly popular genre, because the journeys to liberation they narrated often took place ‘in a social and political vacuum’. Lohrey has actively written against the grain of this genre. Her novels have always sought a rich and detailed sense of social and political context. But here, thirty-six years after the publication of her first novel, she focuses on a heroic woman, even if that heroism takes an unusual form and is strongly situated in relation to the lives of others.
Lohrey has spent more than three decades chronicling Australian masculinity with a curious and sympathetic eye, but The Labyrinth is in large part about what it feels like to be a woman in Australia. Erica is fierce, independent and determined, but she is continually sidelined because she is a woman, and especially a woman of a certain age. Lohrey is brilliant at detailing what it feels like to be belittled by everyday interactions between men. This does not mean she has let go of her interest in the workings and effects of masculinity: she has not. The Labyrinth is not a long novel, but it condenses complex portrayals of masculinity into strange and compelling characters. There is Jurko, the undocumented immigrant who helps Erica plan and build her labyrinth and enters the novel like a bearded, older, Balkan version of Stephen Eyenon, the protagonist of Camille’s Bread (1996). Like Stephen, Jurko is a man drawn to asceticism, to a set of rules to live by and judge others upon. It is no coincidence that Erica first approaches Jurko with the gift of a cake:
‘I thought you might like a cake, since you have no oven here.’
He opens the tin and stares as if appraising a piece of stone that might or might not do. ‘Cake is unhealthy,’ he says. ‘But it is good for you to do this.’
I think he means ‘good of’, but I can’t be sure.
Cake is at the centre of the conflict between Stephen and his lover Marita in Camille’s Bread, focusing their differing views of what it means to nurture. For Stephen, cake represents feminine weakness. Jurko’s response to Erica’s gift signals his role as reprising a puritan form of masculinity (that might be described, if he were a younger man, as ‘woke’), but he is also open to mystery and ambiguity in a way that leads Erica to think of him as a ‘holy fool’. The fact that he is more than this is made clear in his relationship with Erica’s older neighbour, Ray, a hyperbolically cranky man who spends his time, since he was laid off from his job, shouting at women and cradling a broken alarm clock. Ray is the most explicit portrayal of misogyny Lohrey has ever written. When his wife tells Erica about her teenage niece, Lexie, who is looking for work, he interjects with:
Nothing to tell about that little slut. I know what she gets up to in the Sandhills with those other idiots. She’s a useless piece of work, that one.
He then turns to his wife: ‘don’t you apologise for me, you old bitch’. Erica, in response, glares at him:
You pathetic fool. I stifle an impulse to snatch the alarm clock and pitch it into the ferns on the empty block that lies between us. Instead I walk to the edge of the verandah and the steps leading down to the gate, and run a hand across my scalp for it feels as if a moth has dropped into my hair from under the eaves, or a flying beetle has entangled itself.
Ray’s misogyny is reduced to something pathetic – an insect – that nonetheless clings. At the same time, it has force. Later, in conversation with Erica, Ray ‘snorts, making clear his contempt’ and assumes that she is ‘smitten’ with Jurko, and she thinks: ‘You stupid old creep … What would you know about the appetites of a woman like me?’ In these exchanges between Ray and Erica, there is an interplay between spoken contempt on his part, and its impact on her. She scorns him privately, but has no effective means of responding to him out loud.
Our experience of Ray’s effect on Erica is amplified when scorn is directed towards her from a much closer proximity. The Labyrinth raises the question of how to parent a son who treats you, as a woman, with contempt. The labyrinth itself is an attempt to learn to live with and through an experience of mothering that is horrific, intense. To have your own child spit at you and laugh at you, in large part because you are a woman? As a parent, I find these scenes almost unbearable – and the accumulative force of Erica’s experience of the scorn of men throughout the novel is significant. This is what the novel of the female self can do: enable a reader to understand what misogyny feels like.
In thinking about Lohrey’s writing, I keep returning to the way that Rita Felski uses Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to talk about the kinds of knowledge that the novel can give us about the world. In The Uses of Literature, Felski writes that Wharton
investigates structures of feeling, probes the contours of unspoken assumptions … draws out the innumerable principles of distinction around which a particular culture organises itself. We come to recognise the object that we often, all too vaguely, call society … as reproducing itself through the accretion of endless particulars, through the steady accumulation of everyday events, fleeting observations, and microscopic judgments.
Lohrey, like Wharton, is interested in what a particular society at a particular time can do to a person, a relationship, a family. In The Labyrinth, this kind of sociological detail is evident in the daily ways in which it is not just individuals but relationships between men that sideline women. There is an ease between the men in the novel that explicitly excludes her, and which stretches across generations. The novel is full of men seeking out pseudo-familial and homosocial relationships with other men: her son and a father-figure in prison, Jurko and an uncle, Ray and his friend the policeman. Most clearly, there is the ease with which Jurko involves the older man Ray and Lexie’s young brother Jesse in the project of building Erica’s labyrinth. At this Erica feels
a pang of annoyance. Who is Ray to take on this tone? I should not have agreed to his participation but had been disarmed by Jurko. ‘The old guy is harmless,’ he had said, ‘Give him something to do.’ There is a subtext here, one between men, and I am being excluded from it.
The young boy is invited to carry stones and help with the substantive work, while his older sister is sent inside to help Erica make them sandwiches. As the labyrinth takes shape, Erica hovers ‘on its fringes with sandwiches and coffee like an ageing handmaiden’.
Lohrey’s novels present a view of gender that could be described as essentialist, in their insistence on differences between men and women. This is a novel deeply engaged with the notion of female embodiment and experience. The labyrinth is associated with the female, and with maternity. Erica thinks about the shape of the labyrinth in terms of
The womb and the labrys axe. Female and male: mother and father. Except there is no reason why a woman should not wield an axe.
Here, in the characterisation of teenage Lexie and much older Erica, we see gender difference as significant, but also as something socialised, and learned.
The building of a labyrinth in the sandy backyard of a dilapidated beach shack is a quixotic project that Erica finds difficult to explain to others. She first encountered a labyrinth at the asylum where her father worked and she and her brother grew up. ‘The pattern of the labyrinth was meaningless but it fascinated us both, for it seemed to suggest the possibility of another reality, a mystical geometry of secret formulae and magic spells.’
Lohrey’s fiction has always had a dual aspect. As a chronicle of lived experience in Australia across four decades, it is strongly tethered to the material world of institutions and money and the everyday. At the same time, her novels are interested in the role of that which we don’t understand in driving and sustaining us. They often make this explicit by taking us into characters’ dream lives. The telling of dreams is sometimes seen as a marker of bad writing, as either a kind of cheating that allows a realist novel to break free of its constraints, or a shortcut to a character’s desires and inner life, or an indecorous assertion of the existence of a subconscious. In her interview with Lohrey, Charlotte Wood quotes Henry James – ‘tell a dream, lose a reader’ – but Lohrey doesn’t care. The Labyrinth is an excellent example of how Lohrey uses dreams to open up ‘a space of mystery’ in the narrative. As Lohrey tells Wood:
if you’re giving characters dreams, it’s a way of saying to the reader, ‘there is some mystery here, I’m not quite across it, what do you think?’ It’s a way of setting up more of a conversational or speculative relationship with the reader.
When I am teaching my first year students I often point them to E. M. Forster’s wonderful description of how novels can present a sense of human subjectivity as knowable:
In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed.
In Lohrey’s novels – even Richard Kline and The Labyrinth – we never have the sense that we know her characters fully, or indeed that the novel does. The use of dreams is, counter-intuitively, a marker of the extent of Lohrey’s realism. Her novels are more like real life than the novels Forster describes, because her characters, like us, don’t know other people or themselves particularly well. Lohrey’s writing does not always wear its symbolism lightly, in the sense that her novels often seem to be meditating on what something means and asking the reader in fairly straightforward ways to think about it. These puzzles are often set for her readers in the form of a dream. In Camille’s Bread, it is the knife wielded by Stephen. Here it is obviously the labyrinth of the title, which appears to Erica in a dream, and which she sets out to make a reality, even though she does not clearly understand what it means. These are novels which push back against the idea that human behaviour or motivation is ultimately knowable or rational. As Lohrey says to Wood:
dreams are a message from another realm that we don’t understand. Any narrative that doesn’t have a few messages from that realm is, for me, deficient. Too mastered, too known, too literal.
Lohrey writes about a topic that seems uncomfortable, to say the least, in the largely secular world of Australian literary culture. It’s a topic people don’t talk about much in the world I live in, unless many drinks have been drunk and the party is a very small one. When I first read Richard Kline and realised that its protagonist has an epiphanic encounter with a spiritual guru I baulked, physically, like a horse at a precipice. Whoa there! Was this what I signed up for? Spirituality? That belongs in the ‘New Age’ section of the bookshop, surely, not the ‘Literary Fiction’ one.
But this is one example among many of the doggedness with which Lohrey writes about things that novels tend not to care about, but people do. She is a detailed and perceptive chronicler of Australian middle-class life. Her fictional project focuses on aspects of these lives that are usually treated in literary fiction, if at all, with irony or comedy. She takes them seriously and connects them both to deeply personal desires and to public or political causes and consequences. In this vein, she writes about home renovation, macrobiotics, meditation, even – in this novel – landscaping. She thinks about how these pursuits matter, and what they mean.
Lohrey explains her interest in such ‘projects of the self’ in her 2001 Overland Lecture, where she describes what she sees happening across the preceding decade as ‘the evolution of the idea of the self as a constant work-in-progress and the concomitant growth of what might be described as privatised utopias; the utopia of one’. She is referring to the rise of a culture that now seems commonplace – a turn from public to private concerns, often focused on the home and the body as spheres of perfectibility and control. She situates this in a political and economic epoch in which political agency has become increasingly difficult to exercise.
The Labyrinth develops an interest, present throughout her body of work, in forms of conviction that exist in relation to institutions – political parties, the nation, a church – but also outside or beyond them. Part of what makes Lohrey’s first novel, The Morality of Gentlemen (1984), so compelling is its investigation of the affective experience of conviction: what beliefs and affiliations drive us and how? This interest extends across her communist and union-activist characters, but especially the figures involved in the anti-communist movement, who are driven by affiliations with the Catholic church, but also by a spiritual fervour that is deeply personal. Her following novel, The Reading Group (1988), uses a near-future setting to think about what happens when our convictions take us nowhere, or we find ourselves unable to act on them in ways that make a difference to anyone. This is what has long drawn me to Lohrey’s fiction: her willingness to think about what gives our lives meaning, and how this is enabled or constrained by the institutions that shape how we live. Even her most explicitly political novels are interested in the question of belief.
When Erica returns to the asylum in which she grew up, it is now a tourist attraction. The church has been converted to a cafe. This flags the novel’s interest in the role religion once played in our lives – fulfilling desires for mystery, immanence, epiphany, guidance – and what has replaced it. Walking a labyrinth is a form of spiritual practice that has been situated within Christian churches. The labyrinth at the Chartres cathedral, covered in chairs so visitors cannot walk it, is perhaps the most famous example of this. The labyrinth is a capacious metaphor: for spirituality, but also for creativity, female corporeality, and movement. Erica doesn’t ask too many questions of her dream. She is grateful for it, trusts it, even while she doesn’t understand it.
Erica’s path through grief is framed by her father’s thinking about his patients and their experiences of temporality. He claims that the ‘larger social disease – the yardstick and the clock, the endless computation – generates the smaller private one: a mad resistance’. The novel takes us deeper into the questions raised by Richard Kline’s resistance to the corporate workplace that has shaped him and the recession that pushes him, like many of his colleagues, over the edge.
In her Overland essay, Lohrey argues that we would do better to see such ‘projects of the self’ as ‘less of an exercise in mindless narcissism and more about the individual’s attempts to find a sphere of freedom and agency … in response to experiences of powerlessness and worthlessness under regimes of economic rationalism’. She describes this as a desire to ‘get into “the zone”, to a place where industrial discipline, for one thing, can’t reach us – or anything else either, such as the fraught demands of family and relationships.’
The Labyrinth puts this desire under the microscope. Erica has removed herself from the world of producing value or earning money. She has quit her job. She lives frugally, spending her time on a project that is doomed to be washed away. Characters in Lohrey’s other novels pursue privatised utopias that are escapes from consumer capitalism, yet ‘vulnerable to its depredations’ – home renovation, the body, even meditation as a corporatised practice in Richard Kline. But Erica’s labyrinth is so odd a project that it is a genuine escape: a ‘mad resistance’.
The project is made possible by Erica’s unlikely collaboration with Jurko, who is living under the radar of the state as far as he can. He arrived in Australia by boat, does not have a visa, and lives in a tent. He works odd cash jobs to pay for food. When Erica asks him where he is from, he replies: ‘I am sorry but this is none of your business.’ This is in the context of him not wanting her to be an accessory to his illegal status, but it also replays a conversation that Australians who are not of Anglo appearance have regularly – the call to pin down their identity to a place of origin, an assumption that they do not belong.
Erica’s question – ‘am I at home in this place?’ – reverberates throughout the novel. She and her brother grew up in an asylum for the mentally ill, blind to the ill-treatment that its inmates suffered.
It was a place of great suffering, people said, and former inmates come forward on television, still, after all these years, to weep over their incarceration in Melton Park. But Axel and I had roamed the place with perfect freedom.
This idea that you can live alongside, even inside, a system of incarceration and suffering for others, but benefit from it in ways that make that suffering invisible to you, is a neat analogy for Australia as a settler colonial state. Lohrey’s fiction only ever engages obliquely with the question of Aboriginal dispossession, and when she does it seems to be through this fictional place, Garra Nalla, where in Vertigo the old squatter’s mansion has ‘narrow rectangular slits for firearms’ along its stone ramparts. In returning to Garra Nalla, Lohrey beds down a palimpsestic sense of a place that has been the site of violent conflict between First Nations people and invaders, a colonial whaling station, a coal-mining town abandoned after a fire, and now a prison. The Labyrinth mirrors Vertigo in its careful mapping of a particular place and its characters’ experience of it, while reminding us of its connection to other places. Even when she is focusing so specifically on individual subjectivity and intimate interpersonal questions, Lohrey never lets the outside world slide out of view.
For this reason, the novel of the single female self, which Lohrey did not want to write in the 1980s, is not about the solitary self at all. It is about how that self is constituted by relationships with others, and by relationships that often don’t fit into the familial or economic structures of late capitalism. The Labyrinth is in many ways a distillation of Lohrey’s concerns. We see people pursue projects of the self that start out seeming solipsistic or individualistic, but end up being something else entirely. The Labyrinth and Richard Kline are mirror novels in this respect, bold and odd in their willingness to follow an individual into an amorphous quest.
When I first read Richard Kline, I thought it was going to be about a terrorist, or someone who would go on to do something terrible. There was a portentousness about the description of Richard’s childhood, as though he was destined for no good. Instead, the novel gives us a portrait of one man’s dissatisfaction, irritation, anger, and depression. Richard Kline’s destiny is ordinary and exhausting. The intense focus on his inner state – in the first and third person – frustrated me on first reading. Does he not realise how solipsistic he is? His wife, his son, his friends and other family, all seem to occupy the far periphery of his inner vision, so focused is he on the problem of his own unhappiness. It is difficult for him to understand what the reader knows all along: that our happiness rests on our entanglement with others. Yet his persistence in the face of his lack of understanding, his deep dismay, ends up feeling heroic.
In Lohrey’s novels, we often see readers seeking guidance, meaning and solace, and not always finding it. Erica lives surrounded by her son’s books, which were once her father’s, and she is slowly carrying out her son’s wishes that she burn them all. And yet it is the meaningless project of sorting and stacking these books – fabricated to provide Lexie with some work – that enables the basis for a nascent and almost familial relationship between the two women. When Erica moves to Garra Nalla, her impulse is to avoid social connection, the inevitable questions about who she is and why she is there, every conversation looping eventually to her son. Despite herself, she builds relationships with Lexie, Jurko and, most importantly perhaps, her neighbour Diana. Here, as so often in Lohrey’s fiction, there is a celebration of unlikely friendships that are accidental, awkward, and central to self-understanding and happiness.
At the asylum, Erica’s father seeks ‘a cure for many ills’. Although I’m suspicious of the power of fiction to fix anything (as Lohrey’s novels suggest her to be), The Labyrinth feels like a balm for many ills. The image of the labyrinth makes the project literal: one foot after the other. How to experience the temporality of grief, horror, failure, humiliation? We walk with Erica through her grief and her stubborn insistence on making something whose meaning she does not quite understand. The Labyrinth is just the kind of novel we need now: sharp-edged but ultimately hopeful about our ability to survive the disasters that befall us.
Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature (Blackwell, 2008).
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016).
Amanda Lohrey, Vertigo: A Pastoral (Black Inc, 2009).
— A Short History of Richard Kline (Black Inc, 2016).
— ‘The Liberated Heroine: New Varieties of Defeat?’ Meanjin, vol.38, no.3 (1979) 294-304.
— Camille’s Bread (Angus & Robertson, 1995).
— ‘The Project of the Self under Late Capitalism: Third Overland Lecture,’ Overland, no.164 (2001) 4-14.
Charlotte Wood, The Writer’s Room (Allen and Unwin, 2016).