Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

an archive

The novel Andrew Bolt hates and Zadie Smith’s 21st century classic

 Underground by Andrew McGahan (2006): Andrew Bolt hated it! Now there’s a literary critic to take notice of, eh! It must be a good book… 😉 Andrew Bolt concludes:

It is said that a mark of the great artists is to see us as we really are. If McGahan is a winner of our top literary prize we must conclude this country has no great novelists at all. Truly, ideology does not just blind a writer but strangles his art. How many more examples must Australia endure?

In all honesty I have to say that Underground is not nearly as good as the same author’s The White Earth, but even that novel did not impress me as much as some others:

June 26, 2005

Book Review: The White Earth, by Andrew McGahan

I have not quite finished, but have cast my eye ahead to the end… It is a page-turner in its way, quite compulsive reading once you get into it.

Needless to say it is far more worthy of respect than anything ever written by Di Morrissey, not to mention Dan Brown. Needless to say, despite having just won the Miles Franklin Award, it will wither on the vine in comparison to Brown, Di Morrissey, Colleen McCullough or Bryce Courtenay (“Australia’s Best-Selling Author”)…

I thought Great Expectations from quite early in my reading, and Uncle John has himself been a kind of Pip figure. There are also allusions, I feel, to Patrick White and the pioneering White family – the title has a number of meanings. The allusions may not be entirely complimentary. The novel embodies a not unsympathetic insight into the “white man’s dreaming” of those in rural Australia whose families have in their generations also become part of the land. On the other hand, while understanding the motivation that led to the rise of Pauline Hanson, it is quite clear the novelist does not endorse it. Nor does he endorse mindless condemnation of it.

I worried about the narrative centre being the nine-year-old William, though I suspect I can see his significance. Being born in 1983, Will’s life is also the trajectory of the Hawke-Keating Labor government elected in 1983: the novel ends with the enactment of the Mabo legislation in 1993-1994.

People have called it “gothic”; I think I would prefer “magic realist” myself. If you have to have a label. In this respect I have to say I found Brian Castro’s Shanghai Dancing, which I read last year, richer.

I also think readers of The White Earth (which I really do recommend) might visit, if they can, Nicholas Jose’s underrated The Custodians (1997). Anyway, do read The White Earth: writers as good as McGahan, with a vision of this place we all need to be exposed to, are even greater treasures in the current dark time.

Underground at some levels fulfils that promise, but it is hyperbolic in the extreme, even if no more so than Andrew Bolt’s bilious reaction. I was rather reminded of John Marsden’s Invasion novels, I have to say. It is a decent enough thriller and very funny at times. I really do not believe Underground’s police state scenario is all that likely, even in my darkest moments, though I give it much more credence than Andrew Bolt does, even if both Bolt and I (or any other reader) need to remember at all times that the novel is after all a satire, not a documentary history. The scene on the bus where officials from the Department of Citizenship (Orwellian enough as it is both in name and function, a point Marcel makes in his latest post) administer an only slightly exaggerated Citizenship Test to a bus full of Australian Patriots does resonate uncomfortably, however, as does much else. And this I relate to:

Citizenship tests… Could we sink any lower?

And as for loyalty oaths, time was that only new immigrants had to take them. For the rest of us sunburnt slobs, lucky enough to have been born here — well, that was all you needed. You didn’t have to play the national anthem twenty times a day, or fly the Aussie flag in front of your house, or swear loyalty against a thousand enemies. We knew exactly who we were, and how good we had it, and there was no need to make an unseemly fuss in the meantime. Australia? Yeah, a great place, thanks, mate. Happy to be here. National anthem? Don’t actually know the words, cobber, but shocking bloody tune. The flag? Funny thing with a Union Jack in the corner. War against Islam? Sorry, china, not right now, the cricket is on.

Then came the Twin Towers.

Funnily enough, Andrew Bolt’s distaste (predictable after all) is expressed in terms that rather echo some 1950s Stalinist apparatchik’s reaction to Animal Farm or 1984 — those other ideologically driven novels that dared to question the Right Path… The mirror McGahan holds up to Australia under THE TEAM is certainly distorting, but is more true than Andrew Bolt would have you believe.

Meanwhile I have spent several weeks just savouring On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005), one of my VERY BEST reads of 2007. I cannot recall as good a case of the novelist as ventriloquist, there being such a range of voices represented in this brilliant novel, each done without a jarring note. Deep down too I find Smith’s diagnosis of the zeitgeist is deadly accurate. I cannot recommend On Beauty too highly. Allowing for obvious differences, it is still something of a descent to move from On Beauty to Underground. This of course is in no way to endorse Bolt’s peevish judgement on the state of the Australian novel.


One should refer to McGahan’s own site, linked at the beginning of this entry:

…one thing the book is most certainly not meant to be is a prediction of what I think will really happen in this country – this is merely a worst-case scenario, almost absurdly overstated. After all, we live in an age where the worst-case scenario is king. September 11 itself was a worst-case scenario come true. And ever since then, western governments around the world have been using worst-case scenarios of further terrorist attacks to explain and justify their ever more stringent security laws and aggressive foreign policies. All well and good, and I’m not for a second denying the need to take terrorism seriously. But it’s important to remember that terrorists are not the only threat we face. Our desperate desire for security from terrorists, no matter what the cost to personal freedoms or to the rule of law, is a threat all of its own – and Underground is merely illustrating, in worst-case scenario fashion, that there are horrible pitfalls into which we could stray, if we aren’t careful.

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Written by Neil

September 26, 2007 at 8:58 am

One Response

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  1. I’ve been thinking today “why do culture warriors keep leveling charges of ideology when they are ideologues themselves?” Keith Windschuttle with history, etc etc…

    I’d like a non-Freudian explanation but I’m stumped.


    September 26, 2007 at 8:35 pm

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