A gi­ant of the Aus­tralian lit­er­ary scene re­turns from a long ab­sence with a tale of pro­found hor­ror and cryp­tic so­cial com­men­tary, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In the great years of Aus­tralia’s late 20th­cen­tury cul­tural ex­pan­sion, nov­el­ist David Ire­land widely was seen as one of the bright­est stars in the lit­er­ary sky: a voice in tune with the ver­nac­u­lar, a po­etic chron­i­cler of every­day ex­pe­ri­ences; in the form of his writ­ing rad­i­cal, in the an­gle of his ap­proach to his sub­jects di­rect, de­motic, free from con­ven­tion’s stul­ti­fy­ing con­straint.

This was Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture in the strict sense of the term: sto­ry­telling that held up a mir­ror to the Aus­tralian every­day and found grace and beauty there. Three times in the 1970s nov­els by Ire­land won the Miles Franklin Lit­er­ary Award, a bell­wether, what­ever else it may be, of pre­vail­ing tastes and fash­ions in the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment. Even to­day, four decades on, his most in­can­des­cent por­traits of west­ern Syd­ney, The Un­known In­dus­trial Pris­oner and The Glass Ca­noe, set re­spec­tively in an oil re­fin­ery and a down-at-heel drink­ing hole ho­tel, seem un­dated: they de­pict life in its flow and make art from life, their events and char­ac­ters and colours blaze like the noon­day sun.

Not for Ire­land the mists of fam­ily sagas or star-crossed ro­mance, the easy de­lights of the me­moir-nar­ra­tive or the sat­is­fac­tions of re­vi­sion­ist his­tor­i­cal fic­tion: he writes in the present, in a tense so vivid it de­feats time. Only a gen­er­a­tion ago Ire­land was at the apogee of his rep­u­ta­tion with readers and crit­ics: he was recog­nised for his nov­elty and his grandeur, he was ap­pre­ci­ated, ad­mired.

His se­quence of pub­lished books came to a close in the mid-90s with The Cho­sen, a ca­pa­cious story cy­cle set in the small town­ship of Lost River, which does duty as an em­blem of the wider Aus­tralia, all tang and quid­dity and in­ter­wo­ven depths. And this is where the lit­er­ary ca­reer of Ire­land seemed to have ended — at least un­til to­day, and the re­lease in print of his first pub­lished work in al­most 20 years, The World Re­pair Video Game, a pre­cise, con­trolled ex­er­cise in hor­ror writ­ing and cryp­tic so­cial com­men­tary, el­e­gantly writ­ten, un­remit­tingly dark.

The tale is sim­ply done: we travel in the mind of a mono­logue-spin­ning, self-jus­ti­fy­ing se­rial killer, a man on a mis­sion to cleanse the fallen world. As al­ways when mur­der is in the air, the nar­ra­tive has a dis­qui­et­ing drive, mod­u­lated by the serene clar­ity of Ire­land’s prose.

Video Game was se­ri­alised in re­cent months in the pages of Ho­bart-based lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Is­land, which is pub­lish­ing the com­pleted work in book form. No one else was game to touch it. Why not, ex­actly? Why not when the West­ern world’s movie houses and its large-for­mat plasma screen TVs are filled with con­stant images of vi­o­lence and killing, and much of what passes for pop­u­lar fic­tion is fu­elled by fan­tasies of dom­i­neer­ing sex­u­al­ity, large-scale killing and re­demp­tive re­venge?

The back­story, known in sketchy out­line in lit­er­ary cir­cles, is a bleak in­dict­ment of the lit­tle shel­tered work­shop of Aus­tralian pub­lish­ing. In 2004 Ire­land’s new novel, De­sire, was com­plete. The sto­ry­line was un­usual: it re­counted the ex­changes be­tween a bril­liant, psy­chotic fe­male sci­en­tist and the hap­less man she cap­tures, hides away in her silo prison fortress and tor­tures, slowly, evis­cer­at­ing him while en­gag­ing in philo­soph­i­cal and so­ci­o­log­i­cal re­flec­tions. The novel presents the in­ner worlds of both char­ac­ters and the writ­ing is of par­tic­u­lar beauty and re­fine­ment: the tor­ture scenes, which build to a last episode of to­tal bod­ily dis­so­lu­tion, stay long in the mind. Ob­vi­ously scenes of just this kind are staged by Hol­ly­wood or sketched out in air­port nov­els with clock­work reg­u­lar­ity, but they are ill-writ­ten non­sense. Ire­land’s way with such ma­te­rial il­lus­trates the power of words and makes the book, with its con­trast be­tween two wills bound to­gether, an al­most un­bear­able ex­pe­ri­ence: art from dark.

There was a pro­gram be­hind this fic­tion: Ire­land was seek­ing to air cer­tain points about con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia, and about the mod­ern West­ern way of liv­ing and think­ing, but he an­i­mated his sub­ject al­most too well. The re­jec­tion let­ters were spec­tac­u­lar. One, from a prom­i­nent pub­lisher, con­tained the judg­ment that the book was so dan­ger­ous it should never be al­lowed to see the light of day. Never! This was a judg­ment more ex­treme than the ver­dict passed The World Re­pair Video Game By David Ire­land Is­land Mag­a­zine, 274pp, lim­ited edi­tion, $35 hb by the Soviet com­mu­nist party’s chief ide­o­logue, Mikhail Suslov, when he was brought the man­u­script of Vasily Gross­man’s World War II mas­ter­piece, Life and Fate, and rec­om­mended sup­pres­sion for at least 200 years.

Gross­man’s sup­port­ers could smug­gle out the banned man­u­script to the free West­ern world; Ire­land had noth­ing — no al­ter­na­tive. De­sire fell still­born from his hand. He re­solved to con­tinue writ­ing, but for the desk drawer alone, and so he does to this day, de­ter­mined and pro­duc­tive as he ap­proaches his 90th year.

With his new­est work, Video Game, he re­turns to the plot the­mat­ics of De­sire —a killer, co­her­ent and in­tel­li­gent, is ac­tive, con­cealed within the lovely land­scape of east coast NSW, re­hears­ing and refin­ing deep con­dem­na­tions of the mod­ern world, serv­ing as in­dex and symp­tom of some­thing out of joint. This time, though, the book, in all its fear­ful strength, is out — it can’t be en­tirely sup­pressed or brushed away. Ire­land’s late-dawn­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion owes some­thing to the ap­pear­ance of his two Syd­ney nov­els in Text’s Aus­tralian Clas­sics im­print, and much to the com­mit­ted ad­vo­cacy of this news­pa­per’s lit­er­ary ed­i­tor, the driven, dark­ness-court­ing Stephen Romei.

What is this veiled para­ble seek­ing to teach? There is a pro­gram­matic tone to the tale’s open­ing, as if Ire­land wishes to sit­u­ate him­self and pro­claim his method: to be clear yet to fil­ter his mes­sages through the fic­tive art; to di­ag­nose the con­tem­po­rary con­di­tion and do so from a halfcracked, sug­ges­tive an­gle.

His in­stru­ment is his pro­tag­o­nist, 42-yearold Ken­nard Stir­ling, son of a mon­eyed fam­ily, a cere­bral fig­ure with fierce the­o­ries about the world he sees around him. “I want to speak truth,” be­gins this nar­ra­tor at the out­set of a se­quence of di­aris­tic en­tries, chron­i­cling the ac­tiv­i­ties on his bush prop­erty at Pa­cific Heights. “If you find it too bru­tal, don’t pre­tend to be­lieve it, think of it as a fic­tion, which is a mode of pre­tence and false­hood that has lived for count­less ages at the heart of hu­man life and be­hav­iour, and is a tech­nique of learn­ing as well as a means of en­ter­tain­ment and re­venge, and some­times a warn­ing or a fore­taste of a new ap­proach to so­cial or­der.”

Stir­ling is first en­coun­tered by the reader boil­ing down the bones of his lat­est vic­tim, re­duc­ing them to their pure el­e­ments so they can be in­cor­po­rated into a con­crete path he is build­ing to­wards the head­land on his prop­erty. His sole com­pan­ion in his en­deav­ours is his faith­ful kelpie cross Jim; but there’s also “Pym”,

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