Emo­tional tide surges through post­mod­ern tale

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pip Smith’s

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

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