THE LIV­ING SEA OF WAK­ING DREAMS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is The Aus­tralian’s chief lit­er­ary critic.

By Richard Flana­gan

Knopf Aus­tralia, 304pp, $32.99 (HB) dial, tun­ing in and out of clar­ity: voice, tense and pro­noun shift­ing and mash­ing to­gether be­fore lan­guage re­solves it­self firmly within Anna’s per­spec­tive. She turns out to be a bril­liant ves­sel for the nov­el­ist’s con­cerns.

Anna is one who has been dam­aged by the es­cape ve­loc­ity re­quired to flee her ori­gins. As a child of Tas­ma­nia’s lovely yet im­pov­er­ished north­west, she has made a point of pride out of her adult main­land ex­ile. Re­turn­ing to the is­land to sit by her mother’s hospi­tal bed­side is a galling re­minder of the past and its on­go­ing claims upon her.

And as a woman mak­ing her way in ar­chi­tec­ture, Anna has been forced to work harder, dis­play greater tal­ent and show more am­bi­tion than her male peers. Suc­cess has cost an early mar­riage and a re­la­tion­ship with her son, a bed­room-bound gamer who, now in his 20s, has failed to fly at all.

A bright, tough woman, un­flap­pable and unil­lu­sioned. So when early on she looks down while driv­ing out of a mu­nic­i­pal carpark in Ho­bart to dis­cover that one of her fin­gers has van­ished, she can only un­der­stand the phe­nom­e­non as some form of cat­e­gory er­ror. Such weird en­chant­ment does not com­pute.

The mag­i­cal re­al­ist vein in this novel starts small — a sin­gle ab­sent knuckle-joint where a ring-fin­ger once was — then ac­cel­er­ates as it spreads: a pan­demic of van­ish­ing. Flana­gan re­ports these phe­nom­ena via Anna’s grow­ing sense of un­ease, but he does not press the point. Peo­ple are re­luc­tant to ad­dress the van­ish­ings di­rectly: it’s a buzz-killer, so­cially, and vul­gar to dwell on.

The re­sult is a vague, un­canny air in­fect­ing the world of the novel. Like those Google Streetview im­ages where of­fice work­ers and shop­pers are caught, frozen in ba­nal at­ti­tudes, ex­cept each face is pho­to­shopped to a blur.

What is the func­tion of this van­ish­ing? What is its place in a novel de­voted to the in­ti­mate fam­ily dance of three sib­lings man­ag­ing the de­scent of a beloved par­ent from ma­ter­nal gi­ant to frail, ad­dled ghost?

The an­swer could lie in the book’s epi­graph: a few lines from the great English Ro­man­tic poet John Clare, pow­er­fully be­moan­ing the changes wrought by en­clo­sure of agri­cul­tural Com­mons dur­ing the early 1800s.

En­clo­sure is also what the dig­i­tal has done to us. It has taken our at­ten­tion, fenced it off and mon­e­tised it — all with our en­thu­si­as­tic as­cent. Never be­fore has a sin­gle de­vice com­bined work, in­for­ma­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, en­ter­tain­ment and eros with such to­tal, ad­dic­tive elan. Yet it ar­rived at just the mo­ment when we needed to at­tend most to our lo­cal re­al­i­ties and the di­min­ish­ments they were suf­fer­ing.

Anna, who turns from im­ages of bush­fire and su­per­storm, burned an­i­mals and bat­tered hu­mans flee­ing dis­as­ter to post a pic of her new shoes on In­sta­gram, rep­re­sents a drive we all ex­pe­ri­ence to some ex­tent: the de­sire to es­cape from an un­palat­able ex­is­tence into the glossy, fil­tered com­forts of the on­line ‘‘real’’.

Fran­cie, by con­trast, whose shift­ing con­scious­ness we glean via her chil­dren, pos­sesses the grav­ity of one who has dwelled in the tan­gi­ble world all her life.

Even the un­rav­el­ling of her mind, a process re­flected in a note­book of scrib­bled rem­i­nis­cence, seems like a sen­si­ble re­tort to a mo­ment in which in­san­ity is re­flected in a dou­bling down on the ster­ile for­mu­la­tions and scle­rotic ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tions, where even facts are up for fu­ri­ous de­bate: a Brezh­nev era of the hu­man spirit.

She grows to be­come — just as Ad­die Bun­dren, ma­tri­arch of Wil­liam Faulkner’s mas­ter­piece As I Lay Dy­ing did al­most a cen­tury ago — a lo­cus for love and dis­pute who lives and dies be­yond the hu­man claims made on her be­half. Both women’s very or­di­nary ex­tinc­tions be­come the ve­hi­cle for uni­ver­sal con­cerns.

Yet the most sig­nif­i­cant link be­tween these nov­els, writ­ten at an an­tipode to one other and yet shar­ing so much, has to do with the mis­use of im­por­tant words — first among them ‘‘love’’.

Anna and Terzo be­lieve that sub­mit­ting their mother to the soft, beep­ing tyranny of ma­chines that keep her in a state of sus­pended an­i­ma­tion is an act of love. They are re­ally act­ing out of fear. Ad­die, in Faulkner’s novel, says of her hus­band: “He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the oth­ers: just a shape to fill a lack.’’

In this, Flana­gan’s call-and-re­sponse to his revered lit­er­ary an­tecedent — the sec­ond great novel the au­thor has sent out straight from his imag­i­na­tion — he ex­plores how our fail­ures to prop­erly love have led us to the point of de­struc­tion. What im­presses most, how­ever, is that Flana­gan’s novel doesn’t end in con­dem­na­tion. It keeps search­ing for the proper form for love; it seeks to sup­ply the lack Ad­die in­tu­its and Anna en­acts.

And it con­cludes, as­ton­ish­ingly for a story about our flaws, our blind­nesses — the in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive fi­asco that has brought us to this point — with a mes­sage of hope, frail and tiny as an orange-bel­lied par­rot, wing­ing in­domitably through a Bass Straight storm.

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