Radical ride through the moronic inferno
Great Western Highway: A Love Story
By Anthony Macris UWA Publishing, 386pp, $29.95
ANTHONY Macris’s first novel now seems closer to rumour than reality. Capital, Volume One was published by Allen & Unwin in 1997. This avowedly experimental work dealt with the effect of market forces on everyday life, and its critical success won Macris a place on The Sydney Morning Herald’s annual list of best young novelists, along with a shortlisting for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Fellow writers and academics (Macris is a scholar and literary theorist) still speak of it with admiration. Today, though, the work has all but vanished. The novel’s rights have reverted and the publisher holds no remaining stock. Online avenues for tracking down the dustiest titles return empty searches. It seems those market forces Macris decried have taken their revenge.
In the years that followed publication of Capital, Macris worked on a sequel. It too was an ambitious fictional examination of the ways in which neoliberalism has insinuated its way into every part of Western life. But this time the author pushed the ‘‘ ornate, intellectually baroque machinery’’ of the narrative to new extremes: multiple perspectives, abrupt shifts in form, 900-word sentences. Macris was twothirds of the way through the book when his young son was diagnosed with autism and the project was abruptly halted. Life tragically intruded on art. Instead Macris wrote a memoir of his family’s experience, When Horse Became Saw, published last year. Its nakedly emotional, confessional tone could not have been further from the intellectual high-wire work of the fictional efforts that preceded it.
Only now, after years of limbo and in presumably truncated form has Great Western Highway reached its end: publication by the University of Western Australia Publishing.
This back story is significant. Great Western Highway is a sequel, interrupted. It bears the marks of a long labour and difficult delivery. For starters, the narrative shows signs of premature ageing. Macris began writing the book in the mid-1990s. He describes a world in which the Gulf War is the most dramatic military event of the time and Margaret Thatcher still has her marbles. It is an era of answering machines and video shop late fees.
In other words, the novel is a slacker period piece. Its restricted setting, 20-odd blocks between the inner-western Sydney suburbs of Petersham and Stanmore (though one chapter does swoop back to London in the early 90s), refers in finicky detail to cinemas now closed and milk bars that have since become the subjects of nostalgic ABC radio documentaries.
For a novel designed to interrogate what Saul Bellow called the ‘‘ moronic inferno’’ of contemporary life, this delay presents challenges. September 11, the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the digital revolution and climate change have taken the phenomena that Macris describes and supercharged them. Indeed, the first decade of the new millennium has seen such swift and violent change that Macris’s 90s setting seems almost quaint by comparison. But that does not mean that the author’s insights — into the ubiquity of media and advertising, the ‘‘ casualisation’’ of employment, the growing inequality that marks our cities, reflected in an obsession with home ownership and real estate — miss the mark.
Macris is a psychogeographer of the urban: he reads the streets of Sydney, and particularly the unlovely section of highway that links the city with the Australian inland as a space where shifts in the way we live are most visible.
For Macris, the Great Western Highway is a physical setting and an analogy for our present condition. Its ceaseless river of light and noise seems to strip pedestrians of a sense of stability. The highway is a non-place: an anthropological dead-zone in which all our hard-won constructs of culture, selfhood, tradition and community are swept away.
What saves the novel from becoming a wrongly shelved philosophical essay, however,