national mythologies in Holden's Performance, M Ackland

Tags: Australia, Shadbolt, Hoadley, Australian identity, McBee, Penguin Books, Holden, Murray Bail, the Pacific, South Australia, Ad Reinhardt, autocrat, Holden Shadbolt, public success, perennial issues, Alex Screech, Western nation, Ringwood, Bail, expanded form, Australian tradition, European writers, Allen & Unwin, Melbourne, London Bail, apparent indifference, independent spirit, nation states
Content: Z F A 2 5 / 2 0 1 1 S e i t e | 27
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From the outset of his career as a novelist, Murray Bail has been concerned with the perennial issues of Australian identity and the
country's putative destiny. As the progeny of a predominantly white,
Victorian settlement on the far rim of the Asia2Pacific region, Australians
have been acutely conscious of their belatedness, isolation and reliance
on a transplanted culture. These factors, together with continued
dependence on powerful allies, have produced Australians" notorious
``cultural cringe". Australia, too, throughout its relatively brief history of
Caucasian settlement, has usually been acted upon, rather than taken
decisive steps to shape its own destiny. Like Holden Shadbolt, the main
protagonist of Bail's second novel, -
, who is at times
``unable to talk", the country ``appeared to need a shove in the right
direction. This was always his trouble, the problem" (159). For the first
hundred and twenty years it meekly followed the dictates of Whitehall,
until granted independent status at Federation in 1901. Thereafter it
prided itself on loyalty to the British flag, and remained dependent on
London for investment capital, as well as markets for its primary
produce. Only the ``shove" provided by Japan's attempt to extend its
empire during the Pacific War moved the loyal Commonwealth member2
state from the side of an isolated and encircled Britain to embrace the
burgeoning superpower on the other side of the Pacific, the United
States. Bail, in his early novels, is concerned with the antipodean nation
that emerged victorious after the Second World War, and with national
traits and blindness that threatened to rob the Great South Land of the
glittering destiny that might have awaited it as a developed Western
nation positioned near the rising economic epicentres of the Asia2Pacific
28 | S e i t e M i c h a e l A c k l a n d
Bail's preoccupation with these issues emerges through his principal
characters and in numerous colorful incidents. Midway through -
, for instance, disaster unexpectedly strikes. A boisterous,
drunken cinema patron is firmly and expertly removed from his seat by
Shadbolt, in his role as bouncer. The rest should be mere routine, and so
it is as Holden begins ``frogmarching towards the revolving doors a wiry
man with a flashy watch, hiccupping and protesting pedantically" (170).
Virtual strangulation with his collar and tie assures compliance until they
reach the foyer, where the man suddenly goes limp. Holden instinctively
relaxes his grip. The proprietor, Alex Screech, true to his name thunders
a warning, but too late: ``Pitching forward the geography teacher from
Broken Hill turned khaki and hiccupped at Shadbolt's feet a broad lava of
vomit, and stumbled out into the fresh air" (170). Shock, horror. This
seems by any measure a calamity for cinema premises that depend on
extending a welcoming interior to would2be patrons--a catastrophic
situation which Holden is about to attempt to rectify when his employer
restrains him: ``The vomit had almost stopped its spread, and as they
watched it rapidly settled and adjusted here and there, suddenly
accelerating at the edges, a matter of viscosity, of carpet drag, until it
reached the final unmistakable shape--Australia" (171). All Holden has
to do is remove his massive size212 shoe from the mess to complete the
familiar outline by producing the Gulf of Carpentaria:
As they stared the uneven surface congealed into mountains and river courses, a pre2Cambrian, a vast desert of abandonment, plateaus there and mineral deposits, dun2coloured claypans, such emptiness, the rich wheat belts ragged among the mallee at the southern edges, while to the north, strips of spinach2coloured vegetation and what appeared to be mangroves. Bright red particles located the capital cities with surprising accuracy and many, though not all, major towns (ibid). Wracked with consternation and indecision, the pair gazes down uncertainly on this disgusting yet fascinating conglomeration, as Bail deftly conjures up analogies. Viewed abstractly, ``it sparkled there on the sea2blue [carpet], the jewel in the Pacific" (ibid), recalling colonial panegyrics to the continent's splendid destiny under white management. Aesthetically, too, it is a unique, unrepeatable yet nauseating creation. Even patriots are likely to find it ``distasteful" (172), and ``already some blow2flies were buzzing around the Northern Territory" (171). Nevertheless, its appearance is perplexing:
Z F A 2 5 / 2 0 1 1 S e i t e | 29
(...) rich but empty, an extreme place, still to be civilised. When everybody knew it was the complete opposite: there were plenty of things to like about the place, you only had to look outside at the streets and shops, at the beach and the clear blue sky (172). Serried clichйs jostle with realities until the arrival of ``the most fastidious of their regulars", the Goodloves, puts an end to speculation and indecision. Holden, who triggered this involuntary eruption, now moves quickly to limit its potentially calamitous effects. With a few strides he, like a primordial titan, detaches the glass lid of the confectionary counter and places it over the vomit. At a stroke, readers are told, ``a disaster had been turned into a valuable asset" (172).
Enacted here in riotous miniature is a creation myth that raises the
recurring questions associated with
, or the great south
land.1 Will observers/discoverers find this startling spectacle a marvel or
an abomination? Should it be effaced as a terrible mistake, or can a
counter2case be made? Does it deserve, in brief, to continue to exist?
And if so, what does it signify? What could its ultimate purpose be? In
addition, there is the issue of its present state. The narrator's description
is tantalizingly open2ended. Certainly it exhibits many of the standard
tokens of development, as well as markers of modernity, but is it
civilised in a profounder sense? Have mental horizons ever shifted
beyond the mind2dulling sameness of beach and blue sky? Fittingly, it is
at this cinema, too, that Screech poses related questions to his captive
audience: ``Now here's the crunch . . . Can you pinpoint your position in
the larger story? What are you up to? Some people--most people--allow
themselves to be simply taken along by events. Are you one of them?
Listen" (148249). Bail's novel performs a similarly admonitory function,
exposing local foibles and parochial indsets, as well as the identity2
endangering undertow exerted ``by events".
This concern with national issues emerged first in interviews and non2 fiction, then was a catalyst in the author's shift from short to longer fiction. Born in September 1941, Bail, like many intellectuals of his
1 On this tradition see Ackland, `Whence true authority' 1993, and Gibson.
30 | S e i t e M i c h a e l A c k l a n d generation, recalled the first two post2war decades with disdain and scarcely concealed loathing. It was, he has stated, ``a drought time of conservatism, conformity and censorship, the R.G. Menzies era" (1988 xv). He experienced his hometown Adelaide as overwhelmingly reactionary, Protestant, and fiercely defensive of time2honored English standards: in short, ``it was . . . so closed and strict" and philistine. ``If I'd stayed in Adelaide, I couldn't have completed these things [his early books]" (Grealy). There conduct was firmly regulated, judgments were starkly black and white. Shades of grey or of black that would later fascinate him in communities overseas, or in the tantalizing canvases of Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, were anathema. Society seemed obsessed with money and practicalities, while its characteristic wedding of small2mindedness with self2important pretensions was pinpointed years later when he noted of ; % 8 + % that Jonathan Swift's precise co2ordinate of 30° 2" south ``doesn't exactly match Lilliput on his map--the island is inland, somewhere in South Australia, perilously close to Adelaide" (1987, 1330). A similarly stultifying mind2set held sway in other state capitals and was a hallmark, according to Bail, of this ``time of boredom and emptiness--of almost deafening emptiness" (Lysenko 38). The corollary of a land and people intellectually parched, culturally bereft, was a literature ``somehow affected by a desert wind. I find most of it dry, curiously empty, akin to journalism", and in need of energetic overhaul (1977). Boredom and constraint spawned a desire for movement and broader horizons, which were sought abroad and in European literature. During four years spent in London at the beginning of the seventies he encountered the origins of much that he had found most baneful in the antipodes. In particular, he bridled at the English emphasis on empirical, commonsensical and utilitarian approaches, which produced an ``urge for classification. Everywhere" ( 12), a ``glut of words--at office and national level ( 17), and ``the peculiar ordinariness of the British" ( 109).2 Profound inertia was almost palpable (``Some days the stagnancy of the
2 indicates a page reference to expanded form in 2005.
(1989), which was reissued in an
Z F A 2 5 / 2 0 1 1 S e i t e | 31
British and everything they've left standing resembles one of those
chipped enamel tubs raised from the ground by iron paws" [ 21]), while
he noted how ``the good sense and dreary stability of England, which
extends into literature, provokes in me an opposing, forceful stance"
( 65). Seeking an antidote to the Anglophone obsession with
characterisation, he turned to European writers, claiming they ``regularly
go beyond, extending more readily into speculation, novels of elastic
shape and size, to include ideas, comment, over2arching philosophies--
invention" (2005, 34). Audacity, speculation and invention became his
watchwords. Inspiration was found in authors as diverse as Kafka, White,
Tournier, Roussel, Borges, Marquez, Calvino, Grass and Bernhard: all of
them writers concerned as much with ideas ``as with tracing the usual
psychological contours" of protagonists, and with securing for
themselves creative elbow room" (2005, 34). Meanwhile in London Bail
jotted down Flaubert's admonition, at the time dubbed ``premature
advice": ``Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that
you can be violent and original in your books" ( 28), as well as Bacon's
assertion that ``the peculiar difficulty" faced by art today was to
defamiliarise reality boldly and to launch a visceral assault on its
audience ( 80). Other entries show a similar attraction to statements
that envisage art in adversarial, iconoclastic terms.
His first assault on Australian complacency, self2satisfaction and post2
war triumphalism came in 1975, when he burst upon the literary scene
. Many of these works,
Bail conceded, are ``propositional", in the sense of ``proceeding to answer
a certain problem or to explore one" (Davidson 265), as well as far more
concerned with issues of perception and revelatory incidents than with
probing psychological motivation. Frequently the result is technically
challenging, multi2layered artifacts. Some stories turn reader
expectations on their heads, such as ``Heubler", others make the act of
imaginative creation as much a point of interest as the protagonists"
lives, as in ``A B C etc". Tacitly, too, they recognise frustration,
incomprehension and distress as hallmarks of local existence. In ``Cul2
de2Sac" Biv's nearest approach to fulfilment is a lighted bedroom
window, seen from afar, which shows a young woman undressing, in
``Paradise" it is a prohibited roof2top garden for Hector. For the
scrambling participants in ``The Partitions" it is precariously glimpsed
32 | S e i t e M i c h a e l A c k l a n d
from on high, while ``The Dog Show" systematically erases the distinguishing traits between man and beast. Some characters virtually abandon the blundering struggle, or comedy, that passes for human interaction, and retreat to what they hope is a safe, though probably still vulnerable distance. Others are caught unawares, with their vacuous, unhappy lives utterly exposed. In a world over which the empirical sciences had promised mastery, Bail repeatedly depicts human beings as unfulfilled and defeated by existence--traits that recur in his early novels.
Ultimately Bail's ambitions, and in particular his desire for a
comprehensive reckoning with Australian tradition, arguably dictated his
shift from the short story to the novel. In 1980 he distinguished these
fictional forms in terms respectively of compression and complexity. ``By
definition a short story should be a compression of something, a single
facet or point of view, prejudices--or character assassinations, if you
like--in which everything is carefully composed, a deliberate assembly of
traits" (Sayers). Eventually he found that what he wanted to present
demanded works with greater potential scope. ``To me, the complexity of
the world is the most interesting thing about it, and I have realized that I
can best express my view of the world in the novel" (Sayers). He was
also increasingly aware of the role of myth and imagination in shaping
his homeland, in the past as well as the present. ``Imaginary voyages to
Australia", he noted in 1987, ``continued long after the European
occupation", and he stressed how ``the enormous invisibility of the place,
once the subject of geological myth", had ``become a source for more
elaborate literary myths" (1330), as well as the cradle of key local
stereotypes that he would dissect in -
Bail's first direct fictional critique of Australian traits and attitudes came
in -
(1980). Although it focuses on the peregrinations of
tourists through diverse overseas museums, real and imagined, and
through numerous countries, the fact that the group consists entirely of
Australians, means that antipodean preoccupations and secular
mythologies constantly intrude into the narrative. Invariably the tourists
seek self2confirmation in what reminds them of home, such as the
corrugated iron collection, or the red, bibulous nose of a Londoner that
Z F A 2 5 / 2 0 1 1 S e i t e | 33
uncannily recalls Uluru. A complementary obtuseness often marks their
response to foreign cultures, as when the first African museum merely
evokes for the Cathcarts parallels with the junk in their own garage (30).
Unobtrusively but devastatingly, -
captures a prevalent
tendency towards self2deprecation (``We don't speak very well. Have you
noticed how the Americans are so descriptive and confident? Our
sentences are shorter. Our thoughts break off. We don't seem
comfortable talking, I don't know why" [296297]), as well as patriotic
assertions of local achievement, singled out in graffiti, such as ``Capt.
Cook/Burke and Wills/Crap all over Burton" (137), or ``Balls to tennis"
and ``Australians ace" (72). Also the quest for what is distinctively local is
narrowed, in time2honored fashion, to such mesmerizing words as
``kangaroo" and ``boomerang", with Bail providing a serried bestiary
drawn mainly from European letters:
``Implacable kangaroos of laughter", wrote young Lautrйamont--a fine metaphor. Very fine. Young Alfred Jarry had his supermale box with not one but several kangaroos. You find the noun leaping like a verb from the hallowed pages of Louis Aragon, Malraux in China, and Goncourt's Journal--yes, he reported eating authentic kangaroo meat during the siege of Paris. Another naturalist is Gide (349250). This page2long catalogue, sampled briefly here, is as much a testimony to the author's affinity with indefatigable classifiers and collectors of rare oddments, like his fictional characters Zoellner and Holland, as it is to the perennial fascination exercised by Australia's ``visually surreal" marsupial (349). Yet even exhaustive endeavours to focus on what is quintessentially Australian cannot dispel the wide2spread, confidence2 sapping fear, articulated by Violet, that
we come from a country . . . of nothing really, or at least nothing substantial yet . . . Even before we travel we're wandering in circles", largely devoid of feelings, understanding, directive ideas or beliefs (393).
These attributes and their putative origins are a key concern of Bail's
next novel, -
(1987). A *
that boldly
subverts the genre, it traces its main protagonist's growth towards an
adulthood associated not with insight, self2knowledge and independent
decision2making, but with emotional and mental stultification and abject
submission. Holden Shadbolt is a mixed creation, with sufficient
psychological depth to give him individual status, yet with stereotypical
34 | S e i t e M i c h a e l A c k l a n d traits that lend his portrait national, even universal relevance. Characterised by blankness of expression and ``know2nothingness" (13), Shadbolt, despite his great strength, endurance and generosity of spirit, remains a deeply flawed and stunted human being. He is, in many respects, an intensely ordinary, predictable figure, a veritable austral everyman, differing from the average only insofar as in him national characteristics, produced by atavism or life on the great south land, are sometimes pushed to extremes. ``Even by the standards of the landscape and a laconic people the drollness of this boy was something else again" (45). This drollness arises largely from his apparent indifference and taciturnity, so that irrespective of what ``he saw or said or listened to his face remained as expressionless as his elbow" (45). Blinking is the main sign he gives of mental life, while his bovine passivity and obvious bulk translate into a powerful ``impression of reliability" (46). Overall Shadbolt embodies paradoxes and tensions that arguably lurk beneath the gaunt, laconic archetype of the antipodean bushman. Apparently he has very few ideas, but he has a receptive, in Holden's case photographic, memory. He has extraordinary physical capacities, but seems incapable of initiating action, or realizing the vital, energetic alternative he occasionally imagines for himself. He evidently has feelings, yet he fails to show them, much to the frustration of anyone seeking emotional closeness or intimacy with him. The familiar figure, in short, is problematised, its often ``impenetrable, invisible side" (69) made the object of protracted analysis. Though at first sight purely an imaginative tour de force, Shadbolt's portrait is actually part of an ongoing tradition of speculation about the Coming Man, and his putative contribution to antipodean destiny. Climate and geography were once widely believed to impact directly on species, from humans to livestock, and alter their standard characteristics. Why, it was asked, should it be different in Australia? Moreover, if the all2conquering white man had been raised in dank, constricted England on poor vitals and worse weather, what greater racial progeny and feats might be witnessed in the New World, with its vastly expanded opportunities for everyone? Others were less sanguine.
Z F A 2 5 / 2 0 1 1 S e i t e | 35
Local conditions were often harsh and taxing beyond belief. In the
outback drought and isolation took a terrible toll, physical as well as
psychological. Add to these routine, mind2deadening labor and the likely
outcome, according to Henry Lawson, was the tall ``country lout"
depicted in ``Middleton's Rouseabout". Presented as the ``type of a
coming nation", Andy is distinguished by endurance, sound health and
intellectual impoverishment: ``Hadn't any opinions, /Hadn't any ``idears""
(Ackland (
1993 263). These attributes eventually enable him to
take over his employer's station, after ``Liquor and drought prevailed".
Adumbrated here is a realm where succession is not necessarily
associated with advancement, and where, to borrow Patrick White's
resonant words, ``the mind is the least of possessions" (558).3 Shadbolt
is Bail's updated version of the Coming Man and, in time2honoured
fashion, a strong degree of correlation is assumed between his prospects
and those of the nation. His life2story recounts the performance not only
of an individual, but of a country seeking to find its way during the
transformative years of 1933 to 1972, and affords a devastating satiric
commentary on the perennial under2achievement of the land and its
Shadbolt is envisaged first and foremost as a product of Australian
conditions. These may be conceived of under two broad headings:
environmental and the struggle for existence. The first constitutes a
primordial stratum, which can at best be built on or subtly directed, and
which shapes an individual's physical, moral and intellectual being. It
consists of dominant geographical and social conditions, from the
ubiquitous harshness and aridity of the world's driest continent to the
regimenting, grid2like pattern of Adelaide's streets, which inculcates
order and plain thinking:
Whole suburbs displayed maniacal obsessions with Methodism, with lawn manicure and precision hedge2cutting . . . There was a yes and a no, a right and a wrong . . . The real facts and direction of things, look, lay out in front: anyone could see that (3).
3 For further discussion of links between these writers see Thomas, while Dixon provides additional commentary on the national myths dissected in Bail's second novel.
36 | S e i t e M i c h a e l A c k l a n d Apart from urban, topographical and climatic factors, the category of environmental influence also embraces such seminal ingredients as national archetypes and informing world2visions, which are imparted by Shadbolt's earliest mentors, Frank `Bloodnut" McBee and Vern Hartnett. They drum into him respectively ``the logic of metals and engines" (63), and the primacy of WORD KNOWLEDGE and empirical verification. Vern's precepts are straightforward. ``Clarity and accuracy--master them" and ``Never exceed the facts" (37). ``Just by looking you can imagine . . ." from Shadbolt draws the blunt retort: ``There's no imagining" (37). From this complete submission demanded before quantifiable, verifiable facts it is only a small step to accepting, years later, the key lesson of Colonel Light to Shadbolt as Secret Service trainee: ``Thinking is only going to throw a spanner in the works" (296). Though allowing for personal ``accidents", the ``essence" of this upbringing and its results are thoroughly representative, as is underscored on the final page: ``he embodies the qualities which have put this country on the map. Very much the local product" (353). Secondary to the original environmental imprint, but crucial alike to individuals and nations, is the struggle for existence or, in Australian terms, for self2betterment and material well2being. This includes the daily conflict for power and resources, for status and breeding partners, which ensures alike species and national survival. Spurred on by the deprivations of the GREAT DEPRESSION and World War II, Australians post2 war joined the other victor nations in the scramble for consumer plenty, and the ``lucky country" again revealed its unsavory, complementary aspect as the ``lurky country".4 Selfless Shadbolt stands in stark contrast to a widespread drive for status and self2gratification. Hoadley's electors, for instance, are happy to accept federal munificence in the form of an expensive bridge to virtually nowhere, or a strip of state2of2the2art road that peters out at the edge of town, because it buttresses their inflated 4 Donald Horne famously described Australia as the `lucky country' (1971), which his contemporary, Harold Stewart, punningly subverted as the `lurky country' (Ackland 2001, 194).
Z F A 2 5 / 2 0 1 1 S e i t e | 37 sense of self2importance. Similarly, Hoadley surrounds himself with the trappings of power, exudes self2confidence, and beds at every opportunity his female constituents. His capacity to exploit astutely the perks and lurks of each situation is only surpassed by McBee's. In both cases this helps assure their public success. Whereas Screech offers his audience only a ``completely black2and2white world" (159) through newsreels, unsweetened by carnal pleasures or public largesse, and ends bankrupt, Hoadley, like McBee, gives the people what they want: ``Technicolor and a happy ending" (159)--as well as belief in its imminent realisation. Meanwhile Shadbolt and his unenterprising contemporaries are happy to watch the energy of rest of world from afar, and be entertained by ``powerful" narratives that virtually absolve them of the burden of interpretation or action (157). They quickly fall under the sway of the likes of Hoadley who, with his accoutrements of high office, including a government car bearing the Australian flag, personifies a virile nation on the move, and alert for windfalls. Crucial to the fate of Holden and Australia, and a major component in their existential struggle, is what Bail terms ``the pathology of power". In context the phrase refers to the representative traits of would2be autocrats ``the world over" (255); however, this pathology is recognizable in the not dissimilar behavior of ordinary individuals and nation states. In both cases it involves a two2sided relationship that consists of autocrat and follower/slave, a role for which Shadbolt is especially suited. From the outset he displays innate respect for authority and seeks to win approval, while he typically projects treasured attributes on a commanding figure, then does his best to defend or otherwise sustain them. His eagerness to be of service, unfailing obedience and utter dependability, in turn, are invaluable to those in power. So is a tendency to inflate their achievements, or read inordinate capacities into a vacant stare. Obsequiousness, hero2worship and an uncritical ``hanging2on2every2word" are ego2flattering, potentially inspiring, and at the very least meet one basic need: ``the successful autocrat needs multiple listeners, and a few minutes with Shadbolt rejuvenated him" (200). Moreover, these characteristics are shown to extend to the masses and the nation, for they, no less than Shadbolt, gravitate towards the powerful and those with a definite, meaning2
38 | S e i t e M i c h a e l A c k l a n d
conferring vision of the world, in response to perceived inferiority and vulnerability.
Hence Australia, as the novel underscores, does its best to be on the
side of ``the irrevocable march of history" (42). Allegiance to Britain, then
the United States, is meant to assure this, while their financial and
economic colonization of the continent, registered in spreading consumer
goods, is regarded as a small price to pay for security. This shift, and its
psychological underpinning, are revealed by the local preference in cars,
initially for English ``models of caution" (12), later for American, chrome2
laden projections of affluence. McBee, ever alert to opportunities and
epochal changes, is undoubtedly right when he links the dwindling local
Market share of British automakers to the empire's decline, and reads a
new Imperial ascendancy in the ever more spectacular, attention2
grabbing models issuing from Detroit. Indeed, as -
shows, so great is the U.S."s post2war sway that Australia seems awash
in status2conferring American products. The daily business of
government is carried out with American pens and Dictaphones, and
even its devotedly anglophile prime minister, R.G. Amen, uses a Cadillac
as his official vehicle. The United States is presumably the main source,
too, of the consumer durables that McBee showers on Shadbolt's
mother. In waiting2rooms around the nation (
makes way for such
American staples as "
, while the success of
Hoadley's cinema chain is built around the wish2fulfilling romances and
epics of Hollywood. Similarly, American war surplus becomes for McBee
the first stepping2stone towards affluence, a GM dealership cements it.
Although Amen may cling nostalgically to the mother country (``sitting on
a park bench gazing at the British Embassy" [292]), it is U.S. know2how
on loan that guards the nation's shores and, in the form of undercover
agent Polaroid, senior government figures. Prosperity and protection
increasingly mean linking individual and national fates to American
goods, ideas and objectives.
This view of the submissive follower state is complemented by acerbic comments on the psychology of the local masses. Repeatedly the public is shown to esteem vivid impressions above substantive content, and to be agog at celebrity performers. McBee knows this from the scrap and
Z F A 2 5 / 2 0 1 1 S e i t e | 39 used2car yards. He rapidly makes himself master of the pantomimes of democracy and oratory, producing at will ``a majestic surf of words, tossing in figures, and never failing to come up with a sparkling vitriolic phrase or two, which people in Adelaide called ``pearls"" (126). The standard techniques of ``mug politicians" are identical with those of the huckster salesman. Their evolved counterparts have charisma, based on well2gauged mannerisms and an astutely honed spiel. Hoadley has the unmistakable accoutrements of high office, and in bridges a sure2fire rural vote2winner. McBee in Canberra embraces national transport as well as multiple overlays of identity2conferring props, including a ``mulga stick to take the weight off the old war wound, and between his raised fingers the tremendous uncircumcised cigar to attract the eye and torpedo any criticism" (256). Nowhere is a specific ideology or party affiliation mentioned. These are incidental compared with the driving self2interest of the autocrat. And the public succumbs. It is reverential before the powerful, such as Amen (Menzies) and Churchill, and rapturous before heads of state. A visit by an English monarch mesmerizes the gathered masses: ``their ecstatic scribbled faces and sticky hands strained forward again", and Shadbolt finds ``himself waving frantically too, smiling desperately" (154), as the cheering multitude holds ``first borns aloft" or jiggles ``miniature Union Jacks" (153). Shadbolt and the crowd are one in their unthinking adulation, in ``irrational obedience" (158), while streets in central Sydney named after British dignitaries, and even an insane king, testify to the timelessness of this colonial hysteria, as will Shadbolt's later experiences as a bodyguard. Overall Bail's verdict on what Harold Stewart caustically dubbed ``the lurky country" is grim, but not unrelieved by hope of a brighter, more promising future. Certainly his major characters are often the means of demolishing hallowed, self2flattering Australian myths. If there is one thing, for instance, Australians supposedly cannot abide, it is a braggart or, as McBee stresses, a bullshit artist. Yet that is exactly what McBee is, and this upstart larrikin, who is able to transform a toe lost in a banal domestic shooting accident into a gory memento from ``Herr Hitler" (275), is well received everywhere by his gullible fellow citizens. Similarly in Shadbolt, the heroic endurance and self2sacrifice, for which
40 | S e i t e M i c h a e l A c k l a n d
the legendary Digger is celebrated, are shown to be merely an extension
of undemanding life2habits, while his capacity to bear extreme
exhaustion, his apparent indifference to pain, are not proof of a stoutly
independent spirit, but reflect blunted responses and an unsleeping urge
to be accepted by those identified with power and ``a clear view of the
world" (92). Bail, in -
, categorically refuses to lend
his voice to the usual chorus of national big2noting, whether it concerns
the Ozzie battler, the notoriously insubordinate Australian soldier, the
allegedly world2famous wit of its longest2serving prime minister, or the
locally famed surf of Manly. But beginning on a small scale in ``The
Seduction of My Sister" (1995),5 then reiterated in the ensuing novels
& (1998) and + (
(2009), Bail depicts at long last
selected protagonists who are capable of genuine growth and of
positively influencing the course of events. His earlier predominantly
satiric vision yields to parables of Australian identity in which neglected
heritages enjoy a renewed and prolonged existence, and young people
move beyond the strictures of empirical knowledge and puritanical codes
to embrace nature's rhythms and the regenerative powers of imagination
and the human spirit. In the concluding words of
& , ``he felt his
story beginning all over again" (255).
:" +
Ackland, Michael.
. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2001.
22222+ (
*# $
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1993.
33333"``Whence true authority in men?": Ideology and the Polemics of
Speech in Literary Presentations of the Voyage to the Antipodes". & ,
7 (1993): 39243.
Bail, Murray,
/ Melbourne: Text, 2000.
. St.Lucia: University of
Queensland Press, 1975.
22222"Continental Shift". ;
, 10 September 2005: 34235.
& . Melbourne: Text, 1998.
. Ringwood: Penguin, 1987.
5 First published in 1995, the story was republished as the second of the two tales
that constitute
Z F A 2 5 / 2 0 1 1 S e i t e | 41
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