The unnamed narrator of Madeleine Watts’ debut novel The Inland Sea (2020) is a recent literature graduate and aspiring writer. Living off the dwindling remains of her student allowance, she plans to get a job, start saving for an airplane ticket overseas. But first she heads to Glebe to buy the first of the novels she will read on the rocks at Gordons Bay over the ‘last hot summer’ of her final months adrift in Sydney.

Given she has just completed an honours seminar studying neglected Australian books, it’s no stretch to imagine one of the novels she reads that summer is Christina Stead’s novel For Love Alone (1944). Set in the 1930s, its protagonist is Teresa Hawkins, an intelligent and idealistic nineteen-year-old who, when she is not working in a Redfern factory saving for her own voyage out, enjoys ‘voluptuous’ swimming in Sydney’s bays. Stead’s Sydney is a dissolute, libidinal city, and a companionable backdrop to her heroine’s own coming of age.

The Inland Sea is set in 2013; the city has gentrified, but probing its glamorous veneer Watts unearths echoes of Stead’s Sydney: as her narrator walks home at night down Elizabeth St, past kebab shops and bars and brothels to her terraced Redfern share-house it is as though the ‘city was gradually loosening its belt and taking off its clothes’. Full of yearning for love and higher education, Stead’s heroine was fond of nightly walks along the coastal cliffs where the darkness stirred with lovers’ sighs and moans. Some eighty years later, Watts’ University of Sydney-educated narrator is having unprotected sex with near-strangers on those same cliffs, while ‘milky condoms’ tangle in the seaweed below.

An unhappy affair with a graduate student has derailed her ambition to undertake a doctorate, sent her into disillusioned free-fall. The conceited Lachlan is a delightful specimen who, two days after she has had an abortion, while ‘viscous dark red clots’ are sliding down the inside of her thighs, leaves her for someone ‘really worth trying for’: Cate, a woman from their honours seminar whose clean fingernails and lack of wayward impulses or addictions imply ‘a level of fortitude and self-reliance that was unreasonable in a poet’.

The narrator’s penchant for shrewd assessments recalls Esther Greenwood, the gifted young protagonist of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), who spent her own ‘queer, sultry summer’ facing an uncertain future, stalled at the threshold of an adulthood that involves women being sorted into Madonnas and whores. Like Esther, Watts’ narrator has an overprotective mother, who worries that she ‘might not resemble someone else’s vision of Eden’ – at the beach her head still rings with the childhood injunction to behave and ‘swim between the flags.’ Swimming heedlessly out into open water, a recurring metaphor for unconstrained desire, she is alarmed by a tropical sea-snake, swept in from warmer waters by a storm. A symbol that is Freudian but also biblical, serpents slither through the novel like antipodean versions of the rattlesnakes that haunt Maria Wyeth, whose own hedonistic ‘last summer’ ended with her being institutionalised in Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It as It Lays.

For all its evocative local textures, Watts’ novel shares much of its literary DNA with a North American tradition of melancholic summer novels in which women who fall afoul of gendered hypocrisies feel the pull of their bodies to blood, their minds to disintegration. Later in the novel Watts’ narrator is having sex with a man on a sandstone bluff above the surging sea, her ‘body being pushed to the edge of the cliff,’ when she is seized once again by a dread of snakes. Rekindling an affair with Lachlan behind Cate’s back, her disquiet accelerates: ‘Taken together, the recent events of my life were of the kind that, in the past, might have made a weak woman hysterical… have her committed to a regime of constitutional walks and water cures.’

 Watts’ narrator remembers a game she played at her elite Ladies’ College, in which the object was for each girl in turn to lie on the floor and stare at a point in the ceiling without giving in to the distraction of her classmates ‘whispering dirty jokes’ about her. A frequent winner, she acquired a reputation as ‘focussed,’ but it occurs to her that what she experienced ‘was more like dissociation’.

It’s a psychological coping mechanism that proves useful when she starts a job at a Triple Zero, connecting nationwide callers to police, fire brigade and ambulance services. As Sydney enters yet another record-breaking heatwave, the calls start rolling in: dogs and babies comatose in locked cars; women hiding under the bed from armed husbands. When the emergencies turn recognisably non-fictional – from the 2013 bush-fires that devastated New South Wales, to the catastrophic storms and flooding that inundated Queensland and NSW that year it becomes apparent that Watts’ novel is concerned with tipping points planetary as well as personal. That tropical sea-snake, washed down the coast from warmer waters, was no abstract augury; ecologies are out of joint.

Not dissimilar to Lizzie Benson’s job answering mail for an apocalypse-themed podcast in Jenny Offill’s novel Weather (2020), the narrator’s call centre job is a conceit with which to dramatise the vertiginous scale-shifting we all experience now, as we navigate issues global and personal. Where Lizzie Benson’s crisis response inclined towards anxious over-competence (familial care-taking, meditation, prepping and neat shots of survivalist wit), Watts’ young shift-working protagonist veers toward atomised despair: ‘If working on the phones had taught me anything, it was that emergency could not be avoided.’ Increasingly getting blackout drunk, she inhabits a twilight state where agency shades into nihilistic abandon. The epigraph to the novel, taken from Anne Carson’s translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, is voiced by Cassandra: ‘Who cares? The future is coming.’

The myth of Cassandra hovers portentously over the novel, which links a maddening political failure to heed the projections of climate science to the plight of women cursed never to be believed. From her vantage-point in the call centre, overlooking Hyde Park, Watts’ narrator takes the temperature of the nation, surreptitiously recording phrases from calls and ‘unattributed fragments’ from other texts, interspersed with ‘thoughts and diary entries,’ in her notebook. (This is a habit that alludes to the composition of the novel itself: a first-person Bildungsroman narrated in a concise, controlled meter with disarming juxtapositions of the personal and political.) Overhearing a male co-worker discredit a woman alleging sexual assault against three Sydney football players, she writes ‘she’s asking for it’.

Watts moves between the dispassionately recorded offence and more discursive passages, like those concerning her heroine’s distant ancestor, the British explorer John Oxley, who in 1817 led an expedition into Australia’s interior in search of a mythical inland sea. Though he failed to find it, he claimed his expedition was in ‘the immediate vicinity’, misleading future explorers. Gifted a copy of Oxley’s journals by her father, who wants her to appreciate her ‘ancestral stake in History, and Empire’, she concludes he was ‘a consummate liar… a swindler and a fuck-up.’ Questioning our national celebration of explorers like Oxley, she locates something coiled and venomous at the heart of Australian mythology, that perpetuates itself in the free pass still given to men like her father, who was ‘the dux of his year, Oxley’s lawful descendant, the golden son who was never wrong.’

Having witnessed her father’s violence to her mother as a child, the narrator understands that all the invocations to be careful outsource male responsibility for violence. As an Australian literature graduate, she is also acutely aware that in the colonial project, the ‘innocence’ of young white women has a particular symbolic weight. Moving between taxi rides where sleazy drivers pretend concern that she is unchaperoned, and asides on the Female register drawn up in the early days of the colony, sorting Sydney’s European women into wives and whores, Watts prosecutes by implication: the anachronistic obsession with white woman’s innocence betrays an anxiety around the lie that Australia was founded on ‘virgin’ land. There is something counter-gestural in her narrator’s decision to abandon ‘the everyday project of [her] safety’. Watts is liberal with metaphor, and her penchant for figurative responses to material power disparities leads the reader into slippery terrain.

Invoking the colonial analogue of earth and women’s bodies implicit in terra incognita, her ecofeminist critique of the trope shades into provocative redeployment of it. The search for the inland sea – the ‘warm, wet centre opening its legs out there in the heart of the dead, dry country’ – inspires a chain of metaphors that draw a tenuous line between colonial forefathers, violent fathers, and shithead lovers. She figures coal mining as men ‘reaching a hand in to the navel of the earth and squeezing at any promising flesh they could.’ Shifting into expository mode, Watts attempts to bring the themes of domestic and sexual violence, colonial violence and environmental exploitation together:

When it was at last understood that there was no Eden, no inland sea, that westward the course of Empire would never make its way … then it was felt, if not made a point of law, that the land was just as wild as the kind of woman who’s asking for it.

Structurally organising the novel into four sections titled Heat, Flood, Tremor, and Wildfire, Watts creates an uneasy correlation between invasion, environmental cataclysm and the narrator’s personal upheavals (from sexual harassment to botched IUD implantations) that errs into melancholic solipsism. Collapsing the political and the personal, Watts appears to sidestep her white narrator’s implication in the colonial project, as though her voluntary abdication of agency absolves her of any responsibility at all.

Sweat rolling down her chest and soaking into the polyester lining of her black lace dress, her anaemic body covered in bruises from sex, there is a certain sumptuousness to this young narrator’s dissolution. Against the backdrop of environmental devastation her days assume an uncannily picturesque, Lomo quality: ‘the air glowing amber and thick with bushfire, we took the container of watermelon and a bottle of vodka and inched bare legs onto the hot leather surface of the seats of her car.’ Yet as accelerating temperatures and catastrophic weather events warp any reasonable definition of the ‘summer novel,’ Watts is unapologetic about what a female Bildungsroman looks like for her generation. On one of her day trips to Gordons Bay, our protagonist finds the rocks are covered with the bodies of birds that, hungry and weak from declining fish numbers in the Bering Sea, have wrecked themselves in one of the increasingly regular ‘thousand-year’ storms. She simply steps along the rocks to where the bodies disperse and the bay looks ‘preternaturally clear … obscenely blue and lovely’.

 In The Great Derangement (2017), Amitav Ghosh argues that the realist novel, with its traditional focus on what John Updike called ‘individual moral adventure,’ is not adequate to representing the breadth and complexity of factors that have contributed to climate change. Yet in Watts’ novel the figure of a young white woman prone to dissociation is something of a silhouette, drawing attention to the culture by which she is backlit, one that habitually abstracts gendered, colonial, and environmental violence. The trajectory of her protagonist is not intended to be read morally. Rather, it is as though the narrator’s psychological state does not – à la the discontents of Didion’s psychiatric report in The White Album (1979)seem to Watts an inappropriate response to the summer of 2013.

In his seminal essay on the cultural cringe, A.A. Phillips described an internalised inferiority complex afflicting Australian culture, and in particular the arts and literature scene, which manifested in a tendency to look for aesthetic validation overseas. By which Phillips, writing in 1950, specifically meant Britain: ‘the fact of our colonialism has a pervasive psychological influence, setting up a relationship as intimate and uneasy as that between an adolescent and a parent.’

While many Australian authors still feel the need to establish themselves abroad to legitimate their practice, in more recent years the locus of critical approval has shifted from Britain to the US. In a 2013 essay, critic Emmett Stinson mounted a persuasive argument that anxieties around cultural inferiority persist in the local critical embrace of Australian writers who come with the seal of approval of American institutions, leading to the prevalence of an easily exported, ‘international’ prose style commonly associated with MFA programs. An expatriate based in the US, Watts wrote her novel under the guidance of Columbia University’s Writing programme. Blurbed primarily by American writers, there’s little question as to the literary godmother hovering over it. Imagining herself as ‘undercover in the real world, reporting from the front lines of [her] own experience,’ our ‘neurotically inarticulate’ narrator, an aspiring writer busy saving for a plane ticket to California, appears to have been modelled on Didion in New Journalist mode. Confused from ‘watching too much American television,’ her narrator notes, some emergency callers dial 911. A wry nod to the US orientation of her novel, it does not stop Watts from veering into pastiche.

Repurposing an unattributed fragment from Didion’s belated coming-of-age essay ‘Goodbye to All That,’ she applies the realisation that ‘certain promises … cannot be kept’ to her generation’s disabused expectation of environmental ‘stationarity,’ noting the thousand-year storms ‘seemed to occur yearly now… along with the heat, the fire and the floods.’ Though she feels a dread ‘palpable as government and humidity,’ explicit diagnoses are outsourced to her garrulous cork-screw curled co-worker Pat, whose rant on ‘the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the melting of the permafrost, the rising incidences of freak weather activities,’ lands with an indictment of their male colleagues: ‘And those dumb fucks … all they give a shit about is footy and lunch.’ With the inveterate note-taker at the apocalypse, she instead shares a preference for the oblique indicting detail: the novel’s opening paragraph, describing men in singlets and sunglasses larking for the popular media during a heatwave, frying eggs on ‘the asphalt of an outer-suburbs driveway,’ culminates in this swift gavel of a sentence: ‘Nobody ever ate the egg.’ Reaching for the insulating irony of a much-emulated cadence, the narrator’s disdain seems (in quintessential Didion fashion) as much aesthetic and demographic as ethical (note that bogan couture). The tone is indicative of a seam of self-regard that runs through the novel.

Frustrating any smug indictment of her novel, as Watts charts her young narrator’s twenty-first century voyage out, she mounts a self-reflexive engagement with the cringe, and the contemporary conditions that inflame it: from our nation’s brash strong man politics and grossly negligent climate policy to an indifference, bordering on hostility, to the arts. This last, Watts handles heavy-handedly, her narrator reporting of a co-worker ‘I told her I had studied Literature, and she asked me if that meant books’. It’s no accident that she falls for Lachlan, who sleeps under a portrait of Patrick White, Australia’s ‘greatest unread novelist’. Giving the insufferable Lachlan an affected voice ‘straight out of Oxbridge,’ Watts slyly, ingeniously, figures the cultural cringe as the archetypal man an intelligent woman knows she shouldn’t want, but does anyway. As her narrator avers, ‘we rarely want the things we are meant to want.’ In a deft meta-fictive touch, she reveals that she has renamed Lachlan after the ‘hopeless river’ along which Oxley sought his mythical inland sea. As she ruthlessly pursues him to the point of near-self-annihilation, the novel emerges as an unabashedly female riposte to nationalistic narratives of epic folly, sun-boiled explorers voyaging into the interior accumulating a masochistic litany of wounds.

Shifting the focus to the coast, where most Australians actually live, Watts maps intimately female itineraries, from the gynaecologists’ office where her heroine is told to ‘practice responsibility,’ to the chemist where, once again purchasing the morning after pill, she is treated better when accompanied by a man wearing a tie. Swapping out anachronistic moralism for cosmopolitan pragmatism, her personalised tour inspires shivers of recognition: walking home from work at 2am with her keys wedged between her fingers, her wearied narrator is not worried about the men that frequent the brothels, but ‘the man in the street who [has] been ejected from them’. It’s an ambivalent paean to the lush sweltering metropolis, giving a malevolent edge to Delia Falconer’s description of it, in Sydney (2010), as a ‘hormonal city.’ A late passage, envisioning a catastrophic future for the city (rising seas flooding JB-Hi-Fis and Body Shops beneath the Queen Victoria Building; flames racing down Parramatta Road and Broadway towards the harbour) unfolds with the sober veracity of climate modelling, but has the force of a Cassandra curse.

Though Watts’ ambitions are admirable, her election of a white, ‘titian’ haired narrator to the role of unheeded prophet encapsulates the novel’s limitations. The narration is executed with the confidence of an A student, who is across the issues and therefore absolved from further scrutiny. Just when Watts seems to be lulling the reader into the vagrant abstractions of another Smart Woman Adrift novel, she gives her heroine an apprehension of ‘a casual sort of violence [that] seemed to vibrate beneath the highways’. References to a brutal history of dispossession are typically cursory, of an allusive nature. Apart from vague mentions of ‘atrocities committed by the Empire,’ there is one encounter, drawn from Oxley’s journals, with an Aboriginal man who was ‘chased and attacked’ by the expedition’s dogs; concluding with Oxley’s description of the man as six feet tall, with a long beard and ‘no arms of any kind,’ the anecdote is over before it’s begun. Not dissimilar to Didion, who in Where I Was From (2003) claimed she could only manage to address her pioneer ancestry ‘obliquely’, Watts seems more interested in evoking her narrator’s inheritance in the starched pleats of elite Ladies’ College uniforms and safety handbooks gifted by mothers than reckoning with her depoliticised existence in a gentrifying enclave of Redfern.

With pointed rejections of ‘the British’, her narrator rhetorically distances herself from the project of Empire. Dismissing London as a boring ‘mausoleum,’ saving instead for America ‘because it has nothing to do with me’, she has all the petulance of an adolescent who fantasises switching parents. Her leave-taking assessment of Sydney as ‘a small and insignificant place on a stretch of shore in the far-right corner of the map, a city nobody remembered, or cared to pay attention to,’ has the air of a poison pen kiss-off. Like the privilege of higher education, settler colonialism reads like something to be shrugged off – although it gives narrative ballast to the heroine’s coming of age.

Where Teresa Hawkins’ infatuation with pseudo-intellectual Jonathan Crow prompted her, three quarters of a century earlier, to head for London, our contemporary narrator’s doomed affair with Lachlan is a crucible in which she forges her own ambitions. Leaving in her wake not just Lachlan and all the ‘dumb fucks,’ but hopelessly suburban poets like Cate (from a ‘world of rhododendrons and cul-de-sacs’) and other ‘dull, linnet-coloured’ girls whose names she claims not to remember, there is little of Stead’s affectionate mocking of her own elect heroine, who imagined that she alone ‘found the way out, which alone does not lead to blindness, years of remorse and hungry obscurity.’ Watts has not yet mastered the gap between author and narrator that gives fiction its complex irony. Capturing the nation in the net of her heroine’s inchoate desires, her politicisation of the cringe is shot through with notes of petty disdain. Despite her best efforts, Watts’ state-of-the-nation lands not so far from John Oxley, who despaired of this ‘ruined Eden,’ doubting ‘these desolate plains’ would ‘be ever again visited by civilized man.’

The Inland Sea is an omnivorous, heady debut dense with paradox and provocation. With no pretensions to lighting the way out of our current mess, Watts guides us into the thicket, leaves us in an anxious twilight between the material and the figurative. Where, we might imagine, our aspiring-writer narrator is sitting down to pen her Künstlerroman – while outside her window, in her fabled California, yet another band of devastating fires, driven by record-breaking drought and heat, burn.

Published December 8, 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 →
Katie Dobbs

Katie Dobbs is a recipient of the 2020 CA-SRB Emerging Critics Fellowship. A writer...

Essays by Katie Dobbs →