Rad­i­cal ride through the mo­ronic in­ferno

Great West­ern High­way: A Love Story

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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,

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