Emotional tide surges through postmodern tale
I’m reading Briohny Doyle’s novel about an island in the Pacific, on an island in the Pacific. The novel is called The Island Will Sink, and a hotel waitress walks past, sees the cover and looks genuinely alarmed. “This island?” she asks. “No no!” I say, laughing and waving my hands in supplication. “It’s just a novel!”
As soon as I say it I want to whisper an apology to the book. The Island Will Sink is not ‘‘just’’ a novel. It is the most assured and innovative debut I have read in a long time, one that has me excited about the political possibilities of postmodern fiction.
The waitress looks relieved but she doesn’t laugh with me. On either side of the hotel, bleached grey trees lie prostrate against the green. Only four months ago this island was hit by Winston, a category five cyclone. The waves dumped sand across the road and this oceanfront hotel was wiped out. Somewhere up in the mountains, or far out to sea, 100 oxygen tanks from the hotel’s dive shop floated, sank, or were wedged in the broken boughs of rain trees. Up the road villagers still live in aidissued tents while they rebuild their tin homes.
People are used to cyclones here, though not often ones this bad. Even so, it hasn’t taken long for new vegetation to tangle itself around misplaced washing machines, busted shacks, enormous trees uprooted. The memory of disaster is soon grown over. For locals the threat of a rising ocean is not the thrilling experience of novelistic drama but the real and recurring experience of everyday life. And it is precisely the territory between these two kinds of experience that Doyle teases out.
Max Galleon, the novel’s narrator, is ‘‘a man shrinking into midlife: increasingly introspective, absorbed in obsessions, hypercritical, pessimistic to the point of jubilant abandon’’. He is also one of the world’s most successful blockbuster filmmakers, ‘‘the godfather of immersive cinema’’ who has made his fortune giving viewers the cathartic, ‘‘haptic’’ experience of surviving near-apocalyptic floods, fires, storms and just about any scenario that can justify exploding a penguin or sinking a skyscraper.
The point of these films is to be thrilled, survive and be born again. That is, until Galleon meets an upstart young filmmaker on Entertainment Tonight who accuses him of making formulaic films that fail to engage with the trauma of real disaster. The ‘‘real’’ disaster in Galleon’s world (our world but after ‘‘the water wars’’ have been and gone) is the sinking of Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. The island has been gradually sinking. It may suddenly drop, or may not sink much further at all. No one is re- ally sure, but everyone is worried about what will happen if it does drop: tsunami.
The sinking of Pitcairn Island becomes the subject of Galleon’s next film, The Island Will Sink. Inspired by the upstart filmmaker, this film will be a bold departure from his previous work: it will not only feel real, it might even become real.
Postmodern fiction has come under fire in recent decades for indulging in irony to the point of heartlessness; for entertaining a narcissistic preoccupation with its own literary tricks at the cost of real world engagement. But Melbourne-based Doyle offers us postmodern fiction with a beating heart; speculative vision at its most politically engaged.
She turns the problems of postmodern fiction back on themselves. The genre’s fascination with uncertainty is patronised and parodied. Galleon’s 12-year-old-son is working on a ‘‘timeline of misconception’’ as a school project, marking the major moments in history when we could no longer be certain about what we once held to be true. He is quick to remind his dad that he can be certain of nothing, and we see how — in this boy — such beliefs lead to despondency, anxiety and a compulsion to play video games all day.
A classic feature of postmodern fiction is the unreliable narrator, and Doyle uses this device not only to keep readers guessing but to pose serious questions about who has agency over our memories, now that they are enhanced, uploaded and externally stored. Galleon has outsourced his memory to ‘‘the archive’’. He can watch his past at a third-person remove, but he can also edit memory, and delete it at the suggestion of others. He is our narrator for much of the book but we begin to wonder how much control he has over his narrative and how much is controlled by his suspiciously placid, all-knowing wife.
What makes Doyle’s novel immune to the standard critiques of postmodern fiction is that its parodies build and rupture, revealing a human emotional life that Galleon is unfamiliar with, but is reassured by nonetheless. The imaginative breadth of Doyle’s vision, and the thoroughness of her research, are matched by a wry, Wes Anderson-style sense of humour. Any clunky, world-building prose is quickly made up for with flashes of lyrical ease, and the assurance that no word is superfluous.
Ultimately, the sum of this novel’s parts add up to a cracking, intellectually stimulating read. Buried in the centre of the story is an image, a serpent eating its own tail, which might be a reading guide for the novel. I finish and look at the calm Pacific, amazed it could wreak havoc. The book’s narrative gaps have made me hungry for what I think I’ve missed. As I cross the dateline from today into yesterday, I’ll start The Island Will Sink from the beginning again, reading as if for the first time. first novel, Half-Wild, will be published next year.
A boat battles rough seas off Pitcairn Island, which is sinking in Briohny Doyle’s novel