In my last year as an undergraduate, I became involved in what I’ve always since described as “a traveling roadshow of Finnegans Wake.” For a year a troupe of a dozen faculty and students met weekly to rehearse a reading drawn from the pages of Joyce’s dream epic, which we performed at area colleges every chance we got. The Wake is enormously difficult to understand, written in a waterfall of multi-lingual puns that retell world and mythic history in the guise of a tremendous nightmare being dreamt by an aging Dubliner. I think it’s safe to say that not even the sagest Joycean scholars in our crew understood every word we spoke. But as we read it to each other repeatedly in rehearsal, more and more of the meaning became revealed. Eventually, the mere act of immersing ourselves in the text over and over again opened the complexity of Joyce’s vision and allowed us to revel in the joys of his linguistic derring-do.
As I swam through the long opening chapter of Alexis Wright’s fantastic new novel, The Swan Book (Giramondo Publishing Co., 2013), I kept feeling that I was back in a world, an experience, much like that of Finnegans Wake. Wright’s opening chapter chronicles a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has sent everything mad, where people have been driven from their homelands, forced to seek refuge without knowing a destination, carrying along with them, as they mass upon the oceans seeking a new home, the history of the world’s cultures. That history becomes layered and overlapped, interpenetrating, elements commingled. Wagner jostles the Bible in a radioactive landscape of water and ice, monkeys and swans. Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, leading this exodus from a drowned world, comes to Australia.
There is a marshy swamp, where she settles, in and amidst the rusted hulls of naval vessels cast up to rot in Army-run camps of an intervention, under a sky filled with swans, sometimes. Sometimes, instead, there are helicopters shining searchlights onto the jetsam of Aboriginal people confined there. There, Aunty Bella Donna takes under her wing the girl Oblivia. Oblivion Ethylene, to credit her fully, is a sly spry spink spank sprint of a thing (a characterization I’ve taken not from Wright, but from Finnegans Wake) pulled out from the depths of a eucalyptus tree where she hid after being raped by a pack of petrol sniffers.
And that, my friends, is just the beginning.
The time is the future, the tail end of the twenty-first century. Except, of course, that the time is also now. Climate change wreaks mayhem across the globe, migrants displace indigenes, apathy and ignorance submit to cruelty and calculation. And about all of that Alexis Wright is angry, furious, steaming with rage. Except when she is laughing and making us laugh until we can’t tell whether our mouths hang open in amazement, amusement, or outrage: tickled until we ache. When I picked up this book I wanted to know how it would compare to Carpentaria, how Wright could possibly match the grandeur and frenzy of her previous, award-winning escapade. The answer, if the thought ran through your mind too, is not to worry. The Swan Book is more of the same, only utterly different.
Forgive me if I’m sounding runic, if this review risks becoming a koan, if I’m pottering with poetry in an attempt to induce you to take up its pages and squawk with surprise. I thought about offering up a plot line to relate how Oblivia is taken from the swamp to be the promised bride of the messianic Warren Finch, boy wonder of the Brolga Clan. How she treks in the company of genies across salt lakes and spinifex plains amidst a biblical plague of rodents feasted upon by owls. How she arrives in a great, drowning city, marries Warren, and never sees him again, except when she sees herself at his side on television, the President and First Lady of Australia. How she escapes after Warren’s assassination, after the funeral that lasts for months, after the messianic corpse is loaded on a refrigerator truck that delivers fresh vegetables and fresh funerals across the continent. How she winds up back on the plains, with a cygnet, plunged in drought, harboring hope. But the plot is the merest of ingredients in this magical cauldron and to focus on its pleasures is to forfeit so much more.
Like Joyce, Wright finds truth and meaning and joy and hope in language; how ironic then that Oblivia is mute. And yet Oblivia makes herself instantly understood to everyone she meets. People carry on conversations with her despite the fact that she doesn’t utter a sound. It is only other characters who fill the book with misunderstanding and miscommunication: when Warren arrives in the swamp looking for his wife, its denizens think he has lost her, rather than realizing he is seeking her.
For Oblivia, in this world that is drenched in myth, the answers are always already known, the wisdom has already been handed down, even if she doesn’t realize it. Thrust out into a hostile world, Oblivia dreams of returning to the safety of her nest in the eucalyptus trunk, but frankly, I’m not sure she was ever actually there. Her memories of such safety may themselves be only myths constructed against the imperative to experience.
But I shouldn’t get carried way with these mythic dimensions, even if they permeate the book and make it a joyful metaphysical romp. The Swan Book, first and foremost, is a story of Aboriginal people’s survival of injustice. How does this book differ from Carpentaria? Well, for one thing, Carpentaria was published before John Howard declared the Intervention, and the history of the past six years hangs heavy in this new novel.
In the pandemonium that ensues after Warren’s assassination, amidst the crowds that throng the cathedral where his body lies in state, an argument erupts when his Aboriginal kin want to take his body home for burial. In the face of the government’s refusal, “the bush folk made a permanent campsite beside the coffin.”
Finally, in a nasty episode of aghast, there was a string of official and much publicized questions raised about who these Aboriginal people were — who did they think themselves, and why had they turned up in the first place, and who had given them room to do native things without permission in the most important cathedral in the country, making everything feel tainted in their sorrow? Were they really Aboriginal? Did they really belong to Warren Finch’s ancestral country? Anthropologists, lawyers, and other experts like archaeologists, sociologists and historians were called to examine the genealogies of these people. An emergency legislation was bulldozed through parliament in the dead of night which claimed that Warren Finch was the blood relative of every Australian, which gave power to the government to decide where he was to be buried.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Roll in laughter, because it was funny, and thought inconceivable that Warren Finch could be buried in some wilderness place with no public access, where only a handful of Aboriginal people who knew the country would know how to get to his grave to say some prayers that they had made up themselves. … The police were obliged under the regulations of emergency laws to intervene in the lives of all Aboriginal people, to throw the bush people out of the cathedral. Then when there were no words left, and nowhere to live in a city that despised the presence of Aboriginal people, Warren Finch’s clans-people went home (pp. 287-288).
If, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce subsumes all of human history into the dream of single man, in a single night, who struggles with loss, with aging, with love, Wright has similarly deployed the phantasmagoria of human cultural history to bring us the tale of Aboriginal dispossession. And as I have thought more about the seriousness that underlies the fantastical, humorous, picaresque tale of Oblivion Ethylene, I am reminded of still another great modern novel.
Ostensibly the record of a quintessentially English walking tour through the East Anglian countryside, W. G. Sebald’s magisterial, cranky, and perplexing book The Rings of Saturn is in fact a profound and disturbing meditation by a German scholar self-exiled to Britain on the human devastation of the Holocaust. As he wanders England’s coastline, Sebald’s narrator digresses to the Belgian Congo, Peru, and China. Like the skull beneath the skin, however, his unshared and unspoken thoughts are always drawn back to the unspeakable, and unforgettable. In pondering the parallels between Sebald’s masterpiece and Wright’s, I came to recognize another extraordinary, elemental irony that Wright wants us to learn.
Oblivia never forgets.
Click the image for a video interview with Alexis Wright on the ABC’s The Book Club (September 20, 2013).