It's probably not the first time an author has provided an explication in essay form of his or her latest work, but the announcement last week of the 2007 Miles Franklin award reminded me that I had yet to fully read Alexis Wright's essay in HEAT 13 on her winning novel, Carpentaria.
I read Carpentaria for myself and reviewed it in 200 words for the Big Issue here in Melbourne four months ago now, after extracting a promise from the books editor that I could review it here as well later on. I'm sorry I've let so much time slip without organising my thoughts on this exciting work at greater length - 200 words is indeed haiku when it attempts to speak of a novel that reaches effortlessly across cultures, mines contemporary cultural research and resonates as extensively through collective memory as this one.
It was helpful to go from my first reading of Pynchon's seventies opus, Gravity's Rainbow, into this gorgeous Rainbow Serpent of a tale. There are stylistic issues common to both which are easier to handle if you're already in the groove of reading across many voices and viewpoints, although Carpentaria is more approachable than that other, not much heftier Rainbow. In her essay for HEAT, Wright speaks of her attempts to create an authentic storytelling style using local voices and rhythms from the Gulf area of Northern Australia resulting in heavily visual storytelling and writing. She evokes a powerful, probably perfect image to describe the results of her efforts:
...the written form is also visual in that it looks something like a spinning, multi-stranded helix of stories...The helix of divided strands is forever moving, entwining all stories together, just like a lyrebird is capable of singing several tunes at once.
Carpentaria is a rich journey of a book that deserves several readings and more academic discussion, which I am sure it will attract. Wright also mentions in her essay that she has researched issues in indigenous storytelling in other cultures, including the Irish and Latin American narrative traditions, both written and oral. She writes of the obligation of the indigenous people of any country to deal with layers of story instead of writing historical accounts (or its fashionable counterpart, historical fiction):
...The Indigenous world is both ancient and modern, both colonial experience and contemporary reality, and the problem right now for us, is how to carry all times when approaching the future.
But the stories that weave through Carpentaria often challenge and contradict each other, as several loosely connected clans struggle for the uppermost hand in a deal with a mining company. Old people dart around their communities looking for children to tell stories to, and the children are warned off listening by the generation in between, who think the olds are crazy.
It is also suggested that the white people of the Gulf have brought stories with them that are deceptive or illusory, or that they have forgotten they came from somewhere; as Wright says, "other people have strange ideas and belief systems about who and what they are".
At the end of her essay she concludes that she 'could have been writing about lonely termites' nests, humanised, sitting in the wilderness like islands...The book asks what becomes of the islands we have created, of communities, our places and ourselves..."
But this is to oversimplify the long, inventive, Rabelaisian catalogue of marvellous things that can be found in this novel, including a floating island of rubbish which emerges at just the right time in an extended and perilous journey, a taxidermist who dreams away his life while recreating models of stuffed fish (surely the most perishable creatures one could seek to preserve north of Capricorn), and a fearful yet madly comic attack on a mine, to name just a few.
I'm going back to Carpentaria soon. And here's what Carole Ferrier had to say in Australian Women's Book Review last year, not long after the book was published - this review contains more information as well as a prescient prediction about prizes.