Saturday, August 18, 2007

Historic Post: Mutt & Duke’s First Ever JOINT, DOUBLE REVIEW

Richard Flanagan’s novels The Unknown Terrorist and Gould’s Book of Fish

Mutt Ploughman:
Duke turned me on originally to the work of the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan when he spotted the novel Gould’s Book of Fish, which he reviews below. Perhaps because he hails from so far away, I had never heard of him, but a little research revealed that his three earlier novels have all been highly acclaimed in other parts of the world, and he seems to have massive ambition and talent. A Rhodes scholar who is also the descendant of Irish convicts that were imprisoned in New Zealand, Flanagan evidently has a long and colorful personal lineage as well as a bloody and conflicted national identity to work with, and both of these obviously inform previous work. Now he has produced a fourth novel called The Unknown Terrorist, which is my introduction to his writing.

To judge from the descriptions of earlier works, this new book is clearly an effort to take a different direction, something I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t read the earlier novels. It’s a very modern story, set in an urban environment (Sydney, Australia), and it resonates deeply in the current global context of terror alerts, privacy infringement, and mass media-induced paranoia. The new novel can be seen as Flanagan’s comment on the state of the post-9/11 world. It’s not a complementary one, but one wonders how it could be.

The Unknown Terrorist is hard-hitting and brisk, written with a sense of urgency. No character comes off entirely well in the beginning and few of them are doing any better by the end. The most sympathetic – and this should tell you something – is the novel’s heroine, known as ‘the Doll’, who makes her living stripping, has severed ties with remaining family, and eschews modern capitalist conventions (such as credit cards), as well as many moral ones (in addition to stripping and casual sex, she likes drugs). Despite her rather loose lifestyle, she does have goals, maybe even principles, and is attempting to adhere to these when she stumbles into a hornet’s nest through an ill-advised one-night stand with a suspected terrorist.

Soon the Doll is on the run, attempting to call in favors and avoiding the police, whom she does not trust. Her face is plastered all over the news as an accomplice of homicidal Islamic extremists, and she is tried, judged and sentenced in the minds of the general public, who are being urged on by a callous, blood-thirsty media. All of it spins wildly out of control, innocent people are caught up in the currents, and blood is spilled, irrevocably and tragically. The most frightening thing is that every part of this story is thoroughly plausible. Flanagan has crafted this bracing novel carefully, streamlining the prose and shortening chapters, so that the breakneck pace matches the speed of our current moment.

This is no conventional “thriller”, however. It is simply that this book cannot plod and be effective. The narration has no time to brood on the tragedy or take solace in small moments of respite. He also is wise to refrain from polemical messages or political statements. This book’s firm footing in the reality of our time speaks for itself. It builds to a climax that is all the more shattering because it is clearly coming from the very beginning.

The only warning I would offer here is that this book begins darkly and only gets more so as it progresses. The character of the Doll – in both senses of the word – is totally annihilated by the relentless pursuit of a world the author clearly feels has fallen far from any form of Grace. The conclusions Flanagan seems to draw from his meditation on the current state of the world, and I mean the entire globe, feel heartfelt but they are nihilistic. You will feel the author’s sadness and despair, while you may not entirely agree with his conclusion that all is beyond hope and God has long forgotten this planet and its residents. If you suffer from existential angst, this book is not going to help.

*** *** ***

Duke Altum:
It’s fascinating that Mutt and I would each encounter a celebrated contemporary fiction writer’s work at right around the same time, and yet have such different experiences with the novels we read. And yet, this is part of what makes Flanagan one of the most exciting relatively young novelists working today – he is a writer absolutely committed to not repeating himself. Nothing reveals that commitment more clearly than a look at his last two works, the aforementioned The Unknown Terrorist and his previous novel, the one I had the distinct pleasure to read, Gould’s Book of Fish.

To start off with a statement like “this novel was unlike anything I had ever read before” is excruciating, I know, and yet in this case it is absolutely the truth. And I can almost guarantee that 95% of readers who pick it up will think the same thing at some point in their experience with it. It’s a novel that almost eludes description. It’s got the tone and language of a Dickens novel, the fantastical and mythic imagery of Marquez, the unsparing violence and darkness of McCarthy, and (from what I have heard) the love and respect for the mysteries of original Australian/Tasmanian landscapes and culture of someone like Patrick White. Flanagan appears to be a remarkably chameleon-like writer, since he has said (and Mutt confirms above) that he was deliberately aiming for short, terse, clean, clipped sentences in Terrorist (“prose like a windowpane” he says, no doubt consciously echoing Orwell) – whereas Gould’s writing style is the exact opposite. Long, lyrical, ornate sentences and paragraphs, complete with ampersands and arcane spellings of English words to mimic that distinctive 19th-century novel look and feel.

This is a Russian doll of a novel, a book within a book within a book that at times has you scratching your head as you might in a Charlie Kaufman-scripted film, wondering which level of reality you’re currently immersed in. The central tale tells of the convict William Gould, imprisoned on a horrific prison island somewhere off the southern coast of Tasmania, literally the ass-bottom of the world, eking out his miserable existence in a cell carved into the side of a cliff (which, depending on the tide, is often near-full with sea water). His only companions in this watery hell are a corpse, the creatures of the sea and his manuscript – a “book of fish” he has been asked to create by the warden of the island, a Kurtz-like maniac who meets a grisly end in a staggering heap opf wild pig dung. Oh yes, there are many nightmares to be found in this book, and some of the images are shocking, not just for Flanagan’s vivid descriptions but also for the cruelty man is capable of inflicting upon man.

The oddly ingenious structure of the book – “a novel in twelve fish” – provides Flanagan with a perfect framework within which he can muse upon his favorite themes, which seem to be love, the loss of both native land and native cultures, and the wonders of nature itself. Clearly someone who draws inspiration from the beauty and complexity of the created world, Flanagan can be quite moving when describing something as simple and (seemingly) inconsequential as the shimmering colors found on the underside of a fish’s belly. And yet, as Cormac McCarthy recently and memorably reminded us (for we seem to have long since forgotten) in his astonishing final sentences of The Road, within those miraculous hues lie mysteries we cannot even begin to fathom.

Flanagan has said that “up until The Unknown Terrorist, my books have always been about love, land and memory.” And it’s interesting that he has reacted to what he calls “a crisis of love” in our age with a book like the one Mutt reviewed above, in which the insanity and fear of a post 9/11 world simply takes over a woman's life, leaving her with no recourse but to embrace the fate that has been so randomly thrust upon her. Gould’s Book of Fish describes a different world indeed, a world in which mystery is still respected, and indeed celebrated in works of art that have the power to transcend class and culture and, ultimately, achieve a kind of liberation for the downtrodden. Frankly it’s hard to say by the end of the book whether that “liberation” is the stuff of reality or of metaphor (for the characters I mean – for us, it’s clearly the latter, as it must always be in fiction), but in writing this powerful, moving, and at times terrifying meditation on art and on evil, Flanagan has proven he has the talent and the courage to follow the "thread" of fiction to where it must inevitably lead: straight into the dark, despairing, God-haunted heart of man.

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