TRUTHS SPOKEN IN BRUTAL WAYS
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
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”,