Review: Cher Tanon Peter Polites

Good Migrant/Bad Migrant

When Jasbir K. Puar coined the term ‘homonationalism’ in Terrorist Assemblages (2007), she was referring to a liberally-sanctioned queerness that had gained credibility in a post-9/11 world. It was, according to her, a biopolitics that pits a ‘sexual exceptionalism’ of the ‘global gay left’ against ‘perverse, improperly hetero- and homo- Muslim sexualities’. Within homonationalism, there lay the ‘convivial relations’ between queerness and neoliberal tendencies – such as privatisation, militarism, surveillance, deportation and empire – that lean on a nationalistic ‘imagined community’ while hawking an illusory feeling of freedom. Not dissimilar to carceral feminism, homonationalism espouses a quasi-progressive rhetoric that justifies racist, xenophobic and aporophobic positions.

One can map these tendencies onto so-called ethnic minorities in the Anglosphere. Where Puar sees ‘a transition underway in how queer subjects are relating to nation-states […] from being figures of death (i.e. the AIDS epidemic) to becoming tied to ideas of life and productivity (i.e. gay marriage and families)’, a similar shift is occurring in settler-colonial Australia. The figure of death here would be racial genocide; ‘ideas of life and productivity’ are observed in the rabid calls for representation within mainstream cultural spheres that rest on self-determination only, with an emphasis on the self. This misunderstanding and co-option of critical race theory, of course, rests on other factors. If acceptance of queer culture and queer lives in the west feeds into the War on Terror and the distinction, in Puar’s terms, between ‘gay-friendly and not-gay friendly nations’, then racial assimilation into white supremacy moves on a similar axis. It relies on the pursuit of the model minority myth by focusing on individual wins – and generally fails to consider how race is intertwined with other political categories.

Aspiration is fine. In a world relentlessly ruled by capital it seems improbable to imagine another reality that doesn’t hinge on the idea of ‘more’ – capitalist realism, if you will. Desire is fine too; we are animals, after all. But the question that really presents itself here is this: What will you do with these intents? And in the quest for a seat at the dominant table, where one can finally escape the stain of marginalisation, what are you willing to give up, and who or what will go down with it?

This inquiry haunts Peter Polites’ second novel The Pillars. Pano is a second-generation Greek-Australian struggling poet who lives with his landlord Kane, a cashed-up white bogan with whom he is infatuated, and who is also his sometime fuck buddy. When Kane receives news that a mosque is about to be built in the nouveau riche Western Sydney suburb of Pemulwuy (‘a physical representation of the new car smell’) where they live, he fears that it will cause the value of his property to depreciate. He recruits Pano into coming up with a plan, which turns into a mock ‘town hall’ intervention involving their neighbour Lorna, a white stay-at-home mum with a corporate background, and Wahid, a Ralph Lauren-shirted brown bloke who calls himself Wally and who, despite being Muslim himself, is pressured into going along with it. Or as Lorna puts it to him, ‘It’s not that you don’t want an Albanian mosque to be built. You don’t want anything that could lower your house prices and affect your wealth and children’s future.’

This strain of Islamophobia disguised as economic concern is a rough shorthand for the homonationalism that Puar explores in Terrorist Assemblages, which Polites has acknowledged that he used as a reference in the course of writing The Pillars. Wally is turned into a figurehead for opposition to the mosque by media which paint him as a Muslim interested in ‘old-world tribal tensions’. He confronts Pano about this, only to be dismissed. We never hear from him again.

Later, Kane plans a meth orgy between him, Pano and two men he picks up on a sex app, one he describes as ‘woggy’ and the other Pano later dubs the self-explanatory ‘Kane Clone’. Kane asks Pano to shave to ‘seem more trustworthy’, to look more like he is ‘white with a tan’. This aforementioned ‘woggy’ man first introduces himself as Pedro, but as the night wears on he reveals that:

…his name was Charlie, and after more and more sways of Kane’s plump bicep admitted that it was really Charbel. He wasn’t Mexican, Peruvian or Brazilian but Lebanese Maronite. He was born here, second generation, and said that he wasn’t like the other Lebs.

But as they find out later, when Charbel becomes the guinea pig for Kane’s dubiously-sourced meth and undergoes a drug-induced psychosis:

His name wasn’t Charlie or Charbel. His name was the kind of terrorist assemblage you’d see on the news, a hybrid of Abu-El-whatever.

‘Kane Clone’ pockets the money from ‘Charbel’s’ wallet, and apologises, ‘Sorry the orgy took a different path and you didn’t get your rocks off.’ After he leaves, Kane and Pano follow ‘Charbel’ in Kane’s Corolla Hybrid and passively witness his arrest by police. As they watch ‘Charbel’ get arrested, Kane comments on ‘how fucked up Muslim gay boys were but also how hot they were’, while Pano adopts a moralising tone:

When the cops and ambos tried to make Abu-El-whatever stand up, parents covered their children’s eyes, shielding them from the sight of his genitals. There was a perversity to this, that they would let their children gawk at a man going through a drug psychosis, watch as he writhed around in distress, but censor his flaccid penis.

Here, we see Kane’s power and Pano’s aspirations feed off each other in a homonationalist erotics. Kane initiates sex with Pano when they get home, their top/bottom relationship more explicit (‘During the sex, Kane negged me and it made me more susceptible to him.’) than ever. It is implied that they are barebacking, and Pano thinks to himself:

My skin became numb to his touch, and as a result my brain became deprogrammed to him as a person. Getting used to his body parts in me, getting used to his ideas being inserted into me.

Eventually, Kane persuades Pano to pretend to be Albanian Muslim, in order to restart the campaign against the mosque: ‘Wouldn’t you want to do it for this place?’, he entreats. Like Bux and Nice Arms Pete in Polites’ debut Down The Hume, Pano and Kane are in a cohabiting, unequal relationship that revolves around the axis of white validation and power. The white gay, even if he does come from working-class beginnings and is a subject of homophobia at large, is in control because he enjoys the privilege of being upwardly mobile.

In his attempts to actualise what he sees as an ideal version of himself, Pano is a consumer of products and trends that denote social capital and aspirational materialism: Nespresso coffee pods; only drinking mineral water, sometimes ‘garnished with cucumber’; a penchant for minimalist interior design; vaporwave. It’s clear that he is desperate to leave the economic instability – shadowed by his upbringing in a working-class, single mother, diasporic Greek household – that has shaped his life. If Down The Hume’s Bux speaks in a ‘machine-gun staccato’, Pano speaks assimilationese – at one point, he acts as a ‘native informant’ of his own culture (‘It’s difficult to explain in English the concept of mental health to Greeks of the diaspora, because of the way that their language froze’), as opposed to Bux, who never attempts to translate the many conversations he has in Greek.

Early on in The Pillars, it’s established that Pano is aware that ‘it’s also easy to mistake money for strength’, while the fracas involving ‘Charbel’ has him thinking to himself, ‘If only I had remembered my personal relationship to the nation and the history this came from.’ There are moments in the novel where Pano engages in self-reflection that reads like essayistic commentary: on Greek integration into white Australian society, the Kardashian-esque aesthetic ‘popular amongst women in Western Sydney’ and the flâneurial demeanour he employs while walking through the suburbs. He comes across as a pre-emptive and self-conscious narrator because he fancies himself as all-knowing.

Indeed, cognitive dissonances are a major feature in much liberal aspirational and assimilationist thinking, and they are ruthlessly expressed through the characters in The Pillars. There are halal samosas especially for Wally at the initial mosque intervention. Lorna’s husband sports Japanese and Pacific-style tattoos despite having nothing to do with either culture. And while Kane is racist and xenophobic, he does ‘Hindu push-ups’, makes Greek coffee frappes that he ‘got a taste’ for ‘when he wore Speedos in Mykonos’ and relishes in cooking a vaguely Middle Eastern dish he ‘found in Australian Life! magazine’. Pano himself tries to justify his ambitions and mistakes with his ‘bad’ upbringing, his vocation as a writer allowing him to tell the story in a highly performative manner, one that is driven by double consciousness.

A second relationship that runs through The Pillars is that between Pano and his old high school friend Basil. A property developer and a fellow second-generation Greek-Australian, Basil has no qualms about displaying that he’s ‘made it’: he wears clothes such as ‘a tight, shiny grey suit with a pale-blue dress shirt and silver tie’; drives a Mustang, lives in an upmarket apartment and squires a trophy girlfriend named Kamilla. The tension between Basil and Pano is understood from the outset. Each man’s inadequacies with regard to their perceived lack of economic and social capital places an evident yet unspoken strain on their friendship.

This dynamic becomes clear after Basil commissions Pano to ghost-write his autobiography, and invites him over to his lavish apartment ostensibly to show him more of his life. There, Pano makes a faux pas, referring to Basil as working in ‘property sales’, which sets off a tirade:

Betcha think you’re a smug cunt, bro. […] Betcha read the Sydney Morning Herald too and believe all its articles don’t ya? […] Betcha look for think pieces or think-pinions on how dumb cunts like me want those dolla dolla bills. […] But I’ll tell ya sumthin, no charge. Those shitty little opinion pieces that make you feel smarter about yourself are underwritten by the property section of the paper. Without the real estate market and the ads and the agents there would be no highbrow fucking newspaper. Us grubby developers funded that crappy little review of your book and those three hundred units it moved. Without property developers like me, there would be nothing for you to read, to make yourself feel better than people like me.

Despite this, they are both aware of how the other can be of use to them. Basil gets off on the thought of an autobiography – and of having a gay friend to show off in the gentrified cafes he frequents; Pano enjoys the income and frisson of upward mobility. The novel comes to a head when Pano uncovers a scheme of Basil’s that involves placing asbestos in properties, then acquiring them cheaply and flipping them for a higher price. It’s at this critical point that we also discover that Basil’s father Spiro acquired his riches in a similar way, and wound up killing his own wife.

This is fine. The trade-off is that if Pano plants asbestos in his mother’s commission flat, he’ll get a finder’s fee. At this juncture he is presented with a chance to leave behind the ongoing burden that is his unemployed, disabled mother and have enough money ‘for a down payment on a studio apartment close to the city’ with ‘a lube dispenser attached to the wall’, laser hair removal and overseas holidays.

One can read The Pillars as an anti-Künstlerroman, in the way that Polites uses the form to achieve the book’s ends yet deliberately works against it. Pano’s character development is morally ambiguous. The sly humour, noirish mood and psychogeographical instinct of Down The Hume remain. In both novels, there is little interest in redemption, each protagonist single-mindedly rampaging towards instant gratification and personal gain. A sense of power is achieved from scapegoating those seen as lower on the social hierarchy.

And so the question of the ‘bad ethnic’ character presents itself in Polites’ work. It’s a massive fuck you to the imperative that fiction – especially fiction by women, queer and non-white writers – present examples of moral living. In both Down The Hume and The Pillars, there are none of those happy endings that cheerfully bridge the challenges of multicultural existence, nor the trauma porn that sees characters from down-and-out circumstances eventually triumphing over their difficulties. Instead, by portraying characters who don’t represent easy moral positions, Polites’ work annihilates the assimilationist fantasy of ‘togetherness’ that is so often parroted in liberal discourse, and the fallacy that disenfranchised people are automatically ‘good’ or innocent.

This same cynicism can be enjoyed in Richard Wright’s The Outsider, George Haddad’s Populate and Perish, Jade Sharma’s Problems and Christos Tsiolkas’s novels, most notably The Slap and Loaded. Rather than indulging in fanciful dichotomies, these narratives would rather face up to the brutal complexities of life itself. Does it ‘get better’? Probably not!

Structurally, there’s a cinematic quality to The Pillars, which evokes films like Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters (2018) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990). Past and present are entangled and spin around each other, the narrative voice growing increasingly unreliable as the story progresses. We are drawn into the characters’ self-deceptions, each lie building upon the next to create blasé justifications for actions which turn into ghosts, into intergenerational hauntings blanketed over society itself. Things change, people die, but decisions influence time beyond conventional strictures of years, months, days and minutes – or, as José Esteban Muñoz writes in Cruising Utopia (a vital parallel text to Terrorist Assemblages), ‘The present must be known in relation to the alternative temporal and spatial maps provided by a perception of past and future affective worlds.’

Indeed, the present is not enough. Towards the end of The Pillars, in the midst of waxing lyrical about Bankstown, Pano thinks to himself:

Much like the debates over whether Italians, Orthodox Greeks and Lebanese Maronites are still considered ethnic or whether they have become Anglo-adjacent. I thought the Italians had come closer to whiteness; they are adequately represented in government and media. But the other day I picked up a newspaper and read an article about a big family of Italians targeting Aussies on an Australian cruise liner. The family structure was described as a gang and the media referred to the father not as a dad but as a ‘patriarch’.

Forms of power predicated on individualist desires wax and wane according to the market, and one’s amenability to get into bed with it. Or, as Pano continues, ‘Their identities change shape based on the environment around them or the obstacles in their way.’ This type of conditional belonging is an extension of the white Australia imaginary: inside this fantasy, goalposts will only keep shifting and the hamster wheel will keep turning. And The Pillars is a scintillating interrogation of this reverie, its ambiguous shape further serving to underscore this dog-eat-dog world, a never-ending race to the top.

Published September 11, 2020
Part of Emerging Critics 2020: Essays by the 2020 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Keyvan Allahyari, Bryan Andy, Katie Dobbs, Cher Tan and Prithvi Varatharajan. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2020 essays →
Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore....

Essays by Cher Tan →