Alexis Wright (2006) – Carpentaria

Up until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about Australian literature.  Then, a brief article in the Financial Times appeared surveying recent works by Australian writers, drawing particular attention to Carpentaria by Alexis Wright (2006).  From the Internet I learned that Carpentaria is a book about the Aboriginal experience in Australia.  The author is herself Aboriginal, “a member of the Waanyi nation” (says the jacket blurb).


I have to confess that on that information I was, frankly disposed not to bother with the book.  I have not been particularly impressed with the writings produced by first this, then that, then yet another oppressed ethnic or socially defined group describing how difficult and unfair it is (was) to grow up (live) in (alongside) a society predisposed to discount, exploit, and disdain members of the group.  Not that it wasn’t difficult and unfair—I have no doubt that it was and is—but rather that (standing Tolstoy’s remark about happy and unhappy families on its head) all oppressed peoples document and complain about their experiences in the same way—only the identities of the peoples and the names they are called as part of their oppression seem to change from one Searing Indictment to the next.


However, there was something in reviews of Carpenteria—a puzzled reaction to the novel’s voice and a sense that the reviewers had been challenged by its content and had come away with real, if unanticipated, literary satisfaction.  When multiple reviewers puzzle, it is generally a reaction to either noteworthy literature or utter nonsense.  I didn’t want to miss out if it turned out to be the former and I could always put the book down if it was the latter.  I decided to give the book a chance.


Daniel Lord Smail, in his 2007 book On Deep History and the Brain, suggests that the history of art and culture is the discernible manifestation of an ongoing human quest for psychotropic self-medication—the collective result of individuals seeking and discovering sources of novel feelings and experiences that the human brain creates in response to unfamiliar stimuli.  In effect, art and culture coalesce around things that keep us from being bored—that make us think and feel in unaccustomed ways.  But the art and culture of the past are never sufficient (been there, done that), so art and culture continue to evolve.  Carpentaria fits right in by not fitting in.


Carpentaria, read from the vantage point of one unfamiliar with all but the barest outlines of Australian history (namely me) conjures up a totally alien world that is at the same time accessible through the universally human individuals (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, alike) who populate it.  The novel evokes the imaginary Queensland coastal town of Desperance—with its two populations, “Uptown” (the whites) and “Pricklebush” (the Aboriginals)—as scrupulously observed by a cultured and sophisticated, Aboriginal, omniscient, third-person narrator from outside of the events described.  The narrative voice is challenging in that it does not hew to a strict temporal progression of incidents, but rather flies through and circles around a story as if its elements were floating together in a cloud, available for observation and elaboration at will, exposing slightly different appearances depending on the narrator’s path through the cloud. The author’s remark on the underlying storytelling tradition is that “stories lasted months on end, and if you did not visit [the home of the storyteller] often, you would never know how the story ended.”  (p.476)   Nevertheless, the novel’s episodes cohere.  This is not willful, in-your-face messing with the reader’s mind.  Stories emerge expeditiously enough.  One simply has to allow the author to tell the tale as best it seemeth her, and she holds up her end of the bargain, delivering a rich portrait of a time, a place, and two peoples. 


Oh, me of little faith!  Shortly after I wrote the preceding paragraph, a quarter of the way through the book, I started getting really lost—in spite of my fine words about the charms of the untraditional narrative voice.  Then, pow!  This slow-moving tortoise-paced novel became a page-turner, complete with guys shooting from a helicopter.  Who’da thunk it?  I zoomed through the next quarter of the book.  From there on, I wanted to know how things would end.  I wanted to know what would happen to the characters and how they would change in response.  There were still some challenging passages when I was unsure of who was real and who was imaginary, but I enjoyed working it out and found the overall experience satisfying. 


Wright wields a deft pen.  She describes small-town backbiting:


Up and down … people went, chucking around their suspicions about each other and casting aspersions around nilly-pilly with their hostile staring about what other people might be thinking, and cutting up the air into thin little ribbons. (p.132) 


The central character, Normal Phantom, recalls his estrangement from his son, Will:


Norm still pictured him packing and firing his words like bullets, “You are wrong, man.  You want to take a reality check on the situation, man.”  Norm remembered those words, very insulting, new words around these parts.  He frequently had a chance to think about what Will said, so much so he often used his son’s handful of words on others, to be impressive in an argument.  (p.231-2)


Norm remembers his wife, Angel Day, who was none too faithful and one day ran away with an unlikely rival.  Norm’s official reaction was, good riddance.


He was shocked to see a secret intimacy residing within her.  He had never before seen this face from her childhood transcending through the travesties of their life together….  She walked with a tranquility and a beauty that was her normal face, but which she had carefully folded up and stored away, saved only now for stolen occasions of when she was completely alone.  (p.242)


How people fail to intervene to stop incitements to violence:


Without saying a word, because the meek do not speak, they went heave-ho, in favour of chucking out madness.  Everyone who was not talking animal madness like they were hearing was quiet.  Instead, they said, without saying a single word, if it was going to be like that—okay then.  No one would bother speaking anymore.


What in this novel is real, what is hallucination, what are dreams, what are ravings, what is didactic storytelling integral to an Aboriginal world-view?  It is sometimes hard to tell. But I was glad I didn’t abandon my reading midstream.  Looking back, I think I understand most of the story—it’s a tragedy and a triumph acted out against a background of white Australian prejudice, incomprehension, and incomprehensibility.  If I have to relate it to something in the American psyche, I will say that the world described is a cross between what happened with the American Indian and what happened with American Blacks.  Carpentaria’s characters are quite alien and at the same time fully human.  I cared what happened to them.  That, of course, is the test of real literary art.  This is a novel that requires work to understand—and thus a novel not for those who like their literary experience to be served up in good stolid Victorian narrative style—but if you are up for a rewarding return on a mind-bending investment, I highly recommend Carpentaria.

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