This is the twelfth instalment in Ashley Thomson’s No Man’s Land Reading Project.
A couple of months ago my boss went to see James Patterson talk at Sydney Town Hall. He came back rather enamoured, and mentioned something Patterson had said that struck a chord with him. After being asked why he was drawn to writing genre fiction, Patterson said that writing books is a conversation. As such, he considers himself to be in conversation with his readers, these lovers and consumers of his blockbuster suspense/thriller novels. This is a conversation he enjoys. By contrast, Patterson explained, readers of literary fiction were not people with whom he felt like having a conversation.
My boss was tickled. And I’ll admit to liking and understanding Patterson’s slight. But for me, it works in reverse. As a reader of literary fiction, I’ve almost never come across a badly written book, but several times I’ve felt I didn’t want to be having a particular “conversation” with a book’s author. Perhaps not coincidentally (and because literary awards are judged by people who love conversations with an especially literary kind of writer) this often happens to me when I read a book that can claim to be “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction” or “Winner of the Man Booker Prize” or, in this case, “Winner of the Miles Franklin Award”.
The Slow Natives interweaves the experiences of a small batch of characters from suburban Brisbane, taking none as its centre whilst giving each their turn. A suburban couple in a loveless marriage, their embittered son, a lonely spinster, a nun who would bring compassion to the staid matriarchy around her, an idiotic but well-meaning teenaged lout. They each have a central personal trial, none of which are exactly resolved, but it is the limited third person (with experimental dips into first) that defines this novel, Astley taking each as her subject to interpret.
When I first watched Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I felt a similar brand of interpretation at work, a brand that borders on manipulation. In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick was forcing me to worship at the altar of a monster. In his doing so it became Kubrick, not the protagonist Alex, who was truly objectionable to me. (The idea that Kubrick likes to manipulate is excellently covered in this Salon article about Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining: ‘In King’s “The Shining,” the monster is Jack. In Kubrick’s, the monster is Kubrick.’) Well, similarly, though the characters are far from monstrous, Astley’s handling of her slow natives speaks almost louder than the natives themselves.
All the characters are well-drawn, but they have been cut by the hand of a mean auteur. These women failing to be desirable or to staunch the onset of old age, these bumbling men despising “bitches” and sexualising teenaged boys, these nuns and priests failing to find God. Their lack of love for one another, their maddening inertia – at some point these qualities cease to be reflections of society and become reflections of the maker’s attitude to it. Overall, it struck me as a book by a person who does not like or respect, and at some level even understand, a certain kind of people – the same John Legend lovingly referred to as “ordinary“. And Astley is expecting you, even forcing you, to share her scorn for their irredeemably small lives.
You feel the disparity all the more keenly because Astley, it seems to me, had the talent to write whatever reality she wanted. She was an exquisite writer, an actual master of an original voice – so impenetrably clever at times as to make you wonder if her books would get published today. But she turns a dry eye on these people and keeps compassion at bay.
The sky beyond the convent perimeters had the eggshell brittleness of late winter against which shellacked trees might crack above the papery beige grass of the frost-dry country. I am beginning to lose myself, he knew. And now this strange creature is found here, abandoned to perfection in some wasteland where even God withdrew ecstasy. The spiritual carrot of fulfilment dangled eternally out of reach.
After setting this book down, I thought of the context in which it was published: Australia, 1965, a country basking in dim sunshine, almost unwittingly behind the times. Australia’s great thinkers and artists continued to abandon ship for the United Kingdom, for more stimulating climes, for a cultural revolution that still today seems to have passed Australia by. In the United States, the 1960s were in full swing and anti-Vietnam War protests were raging.
In this context, it’s easier to understand Astley’s antipathy for the broad, middle and lower-middle class suburban Australian experience: it may have represented to her a complacent, sun-stricken mistake of a thing. This context would also explain why the people heading up the Miles Franklin award chose The Slow Natives – because they were just as fed up as Astley, and her portrayal felt true and important. Sadly, to me, it feels like a writer feigning understanding in order to air their grievances, to unsympathetically deconstruct people they do not like.
As I said at the beginning of this review, though, this isn’t a matter of a good or bad book. It’s perfectly possible that someone else would enjoy this conversation with Thea Astley, and find the exchange of ideas fruitful. For my part, however, this is a conversation I’d rather not have.