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Road to omission

The street where this little mishap had occurred was one of those long, winding rivers of traffic radiating outward from the heart of the city to flow through its surrounding districts and empty into the suburbs.

This could be an excerpt from Anthony Macris’s recent Great Western Highway: A Love Story (Capital, Volume One, Part Two) (2012), a novel centred on a stretch of Parramatta Road that runs from the high density inner-city out to the quarter-acre suburbs beyond. There is something peculiarly evil about this stretch, which absorbs countless billions of commuting hours, funnelled into a canyon of pollution by rudimentary buildings housing tacky Australian commerce. The quote is actually taken from the opening of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann Ohne Eigenshaften), the first volume of which was published in late 1932. It remained unfinished at the time of Musil’s death a decade later. Conceived in the first decade of the last century, the novel is set just before the Great War, and its composition began shortly thereafter. By the time the first instalment appeared, fifteen years had elapsed, along with the social world that it chronicles. Reading the latest volume of Macris’s ‘Capital’ series put Critic Watch in mind of this masterpiece. Also a novel very much of the moment of its conception, the 1990s, Great Western Highway has taken fifteen years to reach publication.

Considered together, the openings of these novels remind us that the street has so often been the stage for novelistic explorations of consciousness in urban capitalism. ‘If all those leaps of attention, flexings of eye muscles, fluctuations of the psyche, if all the effort it takes for a man just to hold himself upright within the flow of traffic on a busy street could be measured,’ Musil’s protagonist Ulrich reflects, ‘one could then estimate the enormous undertaking it is nowadays merely to be a person who does nothing at all.’ Macris’s protagonist, Nick, a man absorbed in every detail of the street as he strolls down it, could be Ulrich’s case study. He has little outwardly to show for his thirty-something years, yet urban existence is, for him, constantly effortful.

They also remind us that the attempt to catalogue experience in the modern city risks anachronism. The time and dexterity of craft required to represent the complexity of urban life is the opposite of the temporality of commodity production that sustains it. Beginning with Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), we could say that any thorough-going epic of the city has an inbuilt obsolescence. This presents challenges for their initial critical reception. The differences between 1904 and 1922, or 1913 and 1932 no longer seem problematic for these canonical novels. It was a different matter at the moment of reception, when belatedness might have distracted from concerted reading. Musil reflected in one his notebooks:

This book has become, covertly, in the course of work a historical novel, it takes place 25 years ago! It has always been a novel of the present, it’s just that now the span [between now and then] and the tension [between these two points in time] is very great, but that which lies beneath the surface (das unter der Oberfläche Gelegene), which has been one of the novel’s primary objects of representation, still need not be made to lie substantially deeper.

He wants to convince himself that access to its true subject will not be blocked off by the passage of time. One imagines, therefore, that he would have been as annoyed at praise for his novel from Moriz Sheyer for being an ‘untimely book in the most beautiful sense’ because it presents a world before the ‘phony and tinny carnival sheen of our present age of sound film’, as he would criticisms of the book for being passé. Neither looks into ‘das unter der Oberfläche Gelegene’.

Surveying The Man Without Qualities’ contemporary reception, Stefan Kutzenberger has collated the following terms used to categorise the novel:

‘analytic novel’, ‘phenomenological novel’, ‘coming of age novel’ and experimental novel … ‘more than a Bildungsroman’ … a ‘development novel’, a ‘coming of age novel’, an ‘essayistic novel’, a ‘spiritual novel’, a ‘societal novel’, an ‘intellectual novel’, a ‘cerebral novel’, an ‘ideological novel’, a ‘collective novel’, a ‘philosophical novel’, a ‘problem novel’, an ‘ethical novel’ and a ‘tendentious novel’ … the first truly successful ‘impressionistic novel’, which is simultaneously the most significant ‘psychological’ novel and the subtlest ‘ideological’ novel … a ‘Zeitroman’ [a novel concerned with the critical analysis of the age in which the author lives] … ‘closet novel’.

These are taken from 256 German language reviews and notices of the novel that appeared between 1931 and 1933. The range indicates both the generic ambiguity created by the passing of time, and the sense that this is a book that requires an intellectually serious response.

The appearance of an ambitious novel in the midst of the flow of middlebrow earnestness and mass-market pulp is a reminder that vying for aesthetic distinction is not limited to authors. In seeking to make the power of art works intelligible, critics have an opportunity to demonstrate their sensitivity and insight, aware that when works gain critical momentum, they judge their critics rather than the other way round. Kutzenberger notes the attempt by a great number of critics to spell out the notion of being ‘without qualities’, in such a way as to suggest that the novel might fail if a clean definition were not forthcoming. Seen with hindsight, the misguided attempt at critical rigour looks like pedantry. A novel such as Musil’s calls for reviewers capable of critically assessing their own habits of reading. This is not to say that ‘experimental’/‘avant-garde’/‘difficult’ literary work are excused from judgement. It requires a different kind of discrimination; one which can think through what is and what is not an important demand on a reader’s concentration.

Great Western Highway could not hope for a critical reception a tenth that of The Man Without Qualities, and Macris does not have the stature that Musil did when his work was released. Yet he is paid a good salary as Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. His first novel, Capital, Volume One (1997), was described as ‘astonishing’, as displaying ‘rare skill and confidence’, as being ‘the most assured and interesting first novel I have encountered for years’: ‘what Macris offers us is a novel of ideas, and for that reason alone it deserves attention.’ To produce the second volume, Macris was awarded a doctoral scholarship from the University of Western Sydney, a research grant from the University of Wollongong, and grants from the Australia Council for the Arts. Excerpts appeared in anthologies and prestigious literary magazines, mostly state subsidised. It has been published by a university press which also receives state subsidy. It is a literary project whose prospects the Australian literary establishment has deemed promising enough to free it from the market sphere on which it reflects.

Many reviewers of The Man Without Qualities focussed on what they perceived to be its lack of a plot. Instead of a causal sequence of events, the novel is woven from essayistic passages of philosophical rumination. Ulrich has a way of engaging with social reality as though it were a laboratory of sensations, which makes him an unpredictable and charismatically wry actor in it. The reflective quality could easily overwhelm the characters, or produce the self-important melancholia of French existential fiction. Musil avoids this by creating a presiding narrator who, if anything, is more ironically detached than the protagonist. He is able to keep the novel in historical perspective and make gags at the expense of everyone:

In Goethe’s world the clattering of looms were still considered a disturbing noise. In Ulrich’s time people were just beginning to discover the music of machine shops, steam hammers, and factory sirens. One must not believe that people were quick to notice that a skyscraper is bigger than a man on a horse. On the contrary, even today those who want to make an impression will mount not a skyscraper but a high horse.

Great Western Highway shifts perspective in each of its sections, covering the spectrum of singular pronouns. In each case, the conceit is upheld that the prose represents events in the consciousness of its characters. It begins with Nick’s thoughts and impressions as he strolls along Parramatta Road to his ex-girlfriend Penny’s house for dinner. It then follows Penny’s consciousness over the course of a day at work at a job centre. Their evening together is narrated from his perspective, leading up to the point when they tune into an interview with Margaret Thatcher on the ABC. There follows a first-person stream-of-consciousness representation of Thatcher’s thoughts as she is interviewed. Perhaps the most unusual decision comes in the next section, which uses the second person ‘you’ to recount a period of despair in London five years earlier, when Nick’s first great love left him and he became obsessed with the television coverage of the first Gulf War. The novel reaches its climax with alternations of Nick’s and Penny’s perspectives in third person as the former makes a desperate pitch for the latter’s heart, concluding with Nick’s ‘you’.

1234567
He (47pp)She (66pp)He (33pp)I (47pp)You (85pp)He/She/He (31pp)You (7pp)
Parramatta RdJob centrePenny’s houseTV Studio (London)London flatParramatta Rd/Norton’s pubParramatta Rd

Table: Sections of Great Western Highway by location and narrative perspective

This table shows what is obvious when reading: this is Nick’s love story. Structurally, we see that its central point is the Thatcher thought-monologue; a section which is perhaps more concerned with articulating the neo-liberal world view than giving us a plausible rendition of what it might be like to be inside Thatcher’s head (as much as they are, we fear, the same). She functions as a kind of Godhead of the capitalist surface which Macris’s meticulous prose lingers over.

In cleaving so close to his characters, Macris has no recourse to a narrator with historical perspective, and so the sense of anachronism is pungent. We are locked into Nick’s earnest hyper-sensitivity, intensified by the self-addressing ‘you’:

One day the New Zealander comes back from lunch with the new Sony Discman that he shows off to the staffroom. You’re amazed at how jealous you are. The sight of its sleek shell of matt black plastic, the silver and gold earbuds that come with it, fill you with a kind of nagging rage that you immediately direct towards its owner.

The upside of Nick’s narcissism is that it allows Macris to do what it seems he would most like to do: give detailed and elegant descriptions of the flotsam of consumption and modern infrastructure, bringing his readers really look at the objects which their daily projects push to the unfocussed periphery. Macris consolidates the stylistic achievement which made Capital Volume One such a critical success. The virtuosic 73-line sentence describing the memory of sitting in the cinema with Penny should be quoted to give a sample of this. The following may give an indication:

Nick paused and stared at the chicken skeleton, amazed that anyone would go to the trouble of placing the bones back in an approximation of their original order, the stumps of cartilage at the ends of the thigh bones white plastic, the ribcage still lined with purple membranes, the neck, thoroughly chewed but intact, twisted to one side as if still weighed down by the head, the wings splayed at the sides as if the creature might rise from it postmortem slab and attempt to fly. Peeping out from behind the limb, printed in red on the grease-stained bag, was the smiling face of Colonel Sanders, his paternal smile emphasised by his shoe-string tie and goatee.

Then there is this, from a section narrated from Nick’s perspective:

Instead she stared at the dental clinic’s display window. It was filled with a series of backlit transparencies that glowed among the darkened shopfronts, before-and-after photographs that show the effects of various treatments, nicotine-stained teeth made pearly white, blackened stumps crowned with gleaming porcelain. … Behind her, hanging down from the ceiling of the awning, a series of pale yellow globes stretched out in vanishing perspective.

Macris, through Nick, is never averse to another analogy, adjective or sub-clause if it can convey more acutely the object and scene in view.

One can never quite be sure whether fleeting sensations are magnified by a narrator nestling inside Nick’s vision, or the extended descriptions represent, in a more literal way, the flow of his thoughts. When narration adopts Penny’s perspective at the moment in front of the dentist, we are given an indication that it tends to the latter. She is absorbed in the emotional intensity of the moment: ‘The window display in front of her suddenly came into view. She was staring at rotting teeth. And all she knew was that it was too much for her, that it was late and she was tired.’

Much, then, depends on the quality of Nick’s consciousness. The structure of Capital, Volume One is open-ended, allowing Macris’s descriptions all the required oxygen. Great Western Highway, a ‘love story’, employs a classic, boy-girl, will-they-won’t-they plot. Within such parameters, the descriptions teeter on the gratuitous. Either Nick’s perversity is such that he really does concentrate on every sensation in spite of the moment’s urgency or the story and characters are props for the explorations in perspective and style. Similarly, Thatcher’s interior-monologue encompasses so many details in passing and ranges over so many political and economic ideas that the pretext of narrative starts to look like just that. Here lies the terrain for a critical judgement of the novel’s achievement. Nick tests our endurance and patience; his vision can be beautiful, but it is depressing that it is so misspent (where does one spend beautiful vision living in a modern city?). And it is as though the narrative techniques are designed to drag us down with him. Seamless plotting might only let us off the hook.

At moments, it as if this tension rends the fabric and a governing idea must announce itself directly, such as when Nick dreams of Thatcher yelling at him ‘It was my policies that said everyone a capitalist! Everyone a capitalist! Everyone a capitalist!’; or when an oil and blood analogy is repeated in successive pages. It feels inevitable when didactic passages follow:

with the war you have entered a parallel universe, one where technology doesn’t make your life better, but where it kills, where machines do their best to destroy other machines, where people kill other people with the same kind of technology you use to live you [sic] daily life.

It is hard not to be deflated when it seems that the effort required to work through the patient descriptions seems to have been in order to clear a path for routine observations.

Even worse, Macris and his publisher decided to publish his exegesis of the novel as an afterword. No doubt this is a compressed version of the document required to complete a PhD. It has the same effect as watching the ‘making of’ documentary after a film. The luminous vision of the novel’s prose appears as though in the pale light of the studio, the director extemporising in terms much less adequate than the techniques themselves. One wonders if this decision was made, in part, out of fear of the novel’s belatedness.

Great Western Highway presents its critics with a multidimensional challenge. The sequel to an acclaimed first novel that established the author in his profession and, one would imagine, led to his being acquainted with many in the critical community. It is critical fiction whose subject is the present, yet has been published fifteen years after its time. The adventurous techniques and honed structure suggest a comprehensive formal conception, but there are evident strains and any judgement must contend also with its auto-exegesis. It therefore presents an opportunity to perceive, through the prism of the novel’s ambition, the sensibility of its critics, and to gauge the way taste is being formed in the Australian literary community.

Writing in the Australian Book Review, Patrick Allington, another novelist with a PhD, responded in an unashamedly personal way: ‘[the novel] captured but then lost my interest’; ‘I like and dislike Great Western Highway.’ The review covers those things which Allington likes and those things which Allington dislikes. He finds Macris’s attention to detail ‘especially riveting’, and, refreshingly, supplies quotes to demonstrate in what way. He finds that the way the novel ‘conjoins’ people, places and politics jolts us out of complacent views about the benefits of capitalist civilisation. He does not like the way that the detail causes the story to drift. He ‘never really warmed to Nick and Penny as characters, and yet I still think about them.’ Therefore he is not sure whether he would recommend it.

By implication, the novel is being asked to respond to Allington’s temperament, rather than it being incumbent on him to respond to its demands. If at first, the close descriptions enthral him, their succession ‘soon becomes seriously boring’. A curious moment comes toward the end of the review, when Allington comments equivocally that a judgement on the novel ‘depends in part on how sensitive a reader is to its didacticism – something that is a matter of personal taste and interpretation’. While free to respond in a personal way to the novel’s style and narrative, it appears it would be immodest for Allington to judge its intellectual ambition (which is what he seems to mean by didacticism). Nevertheless, he assures us that the novel ‘offers important food for thought’.

The Australian’s Geordie Williamson was not so coy. His review announces at the outset that that the work is ‘avowedly experimental’ and his efforts are mainly towards articulating its qualities. This is not achieved through quotation and commentary (none of Macris’s prose makes it into a review of over 1000 words), but characterising generalisation (‘it is a narrative doled out in teaspoons’) and strong interpretation (‘For Macris, the Great Western Highway is a physical setting and an analogy for our present condition’). The first half of the review is taken up with recounting the circumstances of the novel’s composition, leading to the comment that it shows signs of ‘premature aging’ and has become a ‘slacker period piece’. 1990s consumerism seems ‘quaint’ against twenty-first century cyberspace and terrorism. The impression of the novel we form is conditioned by the behind-the-scenes view of its composition and what we can infer from aphorisms such as ‘Macris is a psychogeographer of the urban’. An established voice, and one of the few full-time professional critics in Australia, it is not unreasonable for Williamson to anticipate that his readers will allow him this high-handed perspective. However, from such a height, the novel’s intricate texture can go missing. He writes of the ‘multiple perspectives, abrupt shifts in form, 900-word sentences’, but resorts to cliché to convey their effect: ‘finicky detail’ registers ‘every twist and turn’ of Nick’s and Penny’s struggles, for example.

In a short review in the Sydney Morning Herald, which also ran in the Age, Gerard Windsor quickly gets to the central tension between the novel’s meditative descriptions and the urgency of the plot. He sees that Nick’s consciousness is ‘the main screen for the barrage of capitalist pop-ups’, but it makes no sense to him that Nick would be absorbed by all the finer detail in his belated bid for Penny’s love. He understands this tension to be the result of a contradiction in Macris’s purpose: ‘[he] has harnessed together a novel and a social theory, but they stumble at the hurdle of psychological believability.’ Following this, though, he commends the novel for being at once ‘readable’ and ‘virtuosic’, singling out the Thatcher stream-of-consciousness section. In limited space, Windsor impressively highlights the problems and successes of the novel, but consideration of them is kept separate. Is it not significant that virtuosic prose comes at the expense of psychological plausibility?

The short review is, clearly, a difficult form in which to raise questions, particularly when the weekend lift-out wants unambiguous judgements, and qualifying clauses get culled like feral rabbits. Enter the Sydney Review of Books: a new online journal that is seeking to resurrect long-form literary reviewing under the banner that has been so successful in New York and London (and home also to Critic Watch). Traversing the luxurious 2400 words of Jeffrey Poacher’s review of Great Western Highway, one breathes deeply his contextualisation, via Claude Simon, of the notion of the experimental novel, the quotation from Henry James’s notebook, the reminders of ‘Gogol’s clerks’. He is comfortable writing of Nick as a ‘mediated spectator’, of his ‘semiotic anxieties’; he notes the appearance of a ‘hypertrophied zero’ that recalls the oversized full stop in Ulysses. Learned and expansive, however, are not the guarantors of insight. Nor, of good faith. Poacher indulges in some more frivolous characterisations: Macris ‘chance[s] his arm at some of fiction’s more difficult trick-shots’, and speaks of the detailed descriptions of Parramatta Road as ‘the sort of realism that one could do without’.

These wry moments by no means define the piece, though. As he ranges over the novel, Poacher is generous in his deliberations on the novel’s complexities, and uses irony rather than blunt judgements where the novel is awkward. In a sense, though, it is an expanded short review. It summarises and interprets from a general perspective rather than a reckoning with the novel’s style or developing an argument about its formal adventures. The concluding remarks on the decline of serious novel reading create the impression that, above all, Poacher is happy that novels of this sort are still being published at all. [Read Jeffrey Poacher’s reply here.]

From four reviews, it is hardly possible to make generalisations about the reception that an intellectually ambitious Australian novel might typically receive today. However, some observations might provide the beginnings of a sketch. Aside from ‘food for thought’, it cannot be said that Macris has received polite applause. Each critic struggled with aspects of the novel, and, cumulatively, they present a view of an impressive technician struggling to reconcile narrative, style and genre. Some things, however, do not come into view. None engages closely with excerpts from the novel. Aside from passing references to the postmodern novel (particularly David Foster Wallace), none provides a contemporary, let alone Australian literary context in which to situate the novel’s efforts. None stakes any definite claim for the novel’s significance in view of a long-term critical reception.

The line that separates the purposes of the critical essay and the review starts to become apparent. The review asks that we take the critic’s word for it. This is, perhaps, as it should it be – no matter how much support is provided, judgements have a subjective moment, and the authoritative tone of the review assumes the technical competence of the critic. Yet one can’t quite see how, if the subject of a novel is das unter der Oberfläche Gelegene (that which lies beneath the surface), this can be brought into view without critics reflecting on the terms and sensibilities with which they engage a novel as they do so. At present, Macris’s novel has not been shortlisted for any of the significant literary prizes. Critic Watch does not mean to suggest that it ought to have been. The question is whether a novel of this character can come to public attention without a critical community which is poised to judge it in the terms of its ambition.

One further professional review of Great Western Highway has appeared: a capsule by James Rose in the Daily Telegraph. ‘It’s fair enough,’ Rose begins, to approach with ‘trepidation’ a novel that ‘portrays an inanimate object as the central character.’ Ha ha, a novel about a road. The review ends with a Simon Cowell-like pun: ‘too many potholes’. Between, comes an attempt at a sardonic summation of the novel’s failed pretensions: ‘any sense of connectedness with the novel’s human elements is cruelled somewhat by the technical quicksand the author obliges us to wade through.’

‘Connectedness’ ‘cruelled’ by ‘quicksand’? Mercifully the size of the review means one can quickly step over Rose’s prose. You wouldn’t want to have to scrape it off your shoe.

Translations by Madeleine L. Kelly. With thanks to Stefan Kutzenberger.

Read the ‘Road to omission’ correspondence.

References

Patrick Allington, ‘People, Places and Politics,’ Australian Book Review (February 2013).
Stefan Kutzenberger, ‘„Der Kritik ist kein Vorwurf zu machen“. Zur zeitgenössischen Rezeption des Mann ohne Eigenschaften,’ in Fremde Kulturen, vertraute Welten: ein Leben für die Komparatistik Festschrift für Alberto Martino (Beidler, 2008).
Anthony Macris, Great Western Highway: A Love Story (UWA Publishing, 2012).
Anthony Macris, Capital Volume 1 (Allen & Unwin, 1997).
Tim Mehigan, The Critical Response to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (Camden House, 2003).
Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (Pan Macmillan, 1997).
Jeffrey Poacher, ‘On the Road Again,’ Sydney Review of Books (11 June 2013).
James Rose, ‘Great Western Highway: A Love Story,’ The Daily Telegraph (29 December 2012).
Geordie Williamson, ‘Radical Ride Through the Moronic Inferno,’ The Australian (29 December 2012).
Gerard Windsor, ‘Capitalism a Distraction on the Road to Success,’ Sydney Morning Herald (15 December 2012).