Thursday 14 November 2013

The Tree of Man - Patrick White (1956)

After many years of good intentions I have finally read a novel by that renowned Australian literary curmudgeon, Patrick White. My 1973 edition of The Tree of Man was given to me by a good friend, who once read out a paragraph to me during a visit on a searing hot summers day. I was captivated by White’s lyrical phrasing and his portrayal of the Australian experience, all from one paragraph. Patrick White is considered to be one of Australia’s great writers and one of the significant writers of twentieth century literature. The Tree of Man certainly presents a convincing case for literary genius, however it also caused me to wonder about White’s relevance in modern Australia.

The Tree of Man traces the life of Stan Parker who, along with his wife, Amy Parker, settle on a patch of land close to Sydney in the first few years of the twentieth century. One could say that it is a family saga, yet without the melodrama that usually inhabits such narratives, thanks largely to White’s modernist style. White’s style isn’t exactly the stream of consciousness of the modernists, rather he colours the narrative with the characters subjective thoughts and feelings; creating a kind of allusive narrative impressionism that imbues the mundane aspects of Stan and Amy’s everyday lives with a very Australian mysticism. 

White’s dense modernist style makes the novel a reasonable challenge to read, but one that is well worth pursuing. The novel has strong existential themes which are explored through the lives of Stan and Amy, as they tend to their dairy farm, have children and deal with the vicissitudes of life. Their lives are  made profound against the background of the elemental Australian landscape, yet White also tears away their certainty, referring to them as “ant man” and “ant woman,” reminding us that the control humans have over our destinies is limited; rendering us merely a small part of a far greater capricious whole. Within this existential context Amy and Stan live, like Adam and Eve, in their bush eden and create their own world. The isolation of their lives, with initially few neighbors in the semi wilderness area, gives an impression of what it was like for the first settlers in Australia. There are floods, bush-fires and thunderstorms that threaten their tenuous existence. Yet despite the challenges they persevere and remain together throughout their lives on the land, representing a triumph of will against a backdrop of uncertainty.

The Tree of Man brilliantly portrays the cycles of life, taking Stan and Amy through youth and into middle age. White deals with the psychology of these changes subtly, through their relationships with their son and daughter and the land they live on. Stan and Amy’s relationship evolves through the struggle to understand each other, with Amy often pondering whether she’ll ever really “see into” Stan. As the novel takes them into old age they struggle to understand death and God. White uses old age as a litmus test for the concept of God, or the Christian God at least. Stan is perplexed, whilst Amy takes to the idea more readily. Stan sees God in a gob of spit he produces whilst he is being harassed by a born again evangelist and suddenly his life makes sense, but not the kind of sense that Christianity so earnestly tries to provide.

The last short chapter, only two pages long, beautifully sums up the themes of The Tree of Man and is one of the greatest I’ve ever read. Stan’s grandchild lingers in a wooded gully thinking about his grandfather’s life, feeling helpless and unformed. He decides to write a poem “of life”, a notion that overwhelms him. After a long intense novel filled with White’s allusive, poetic style (poetic realism, I thought to myself over a cup of tea) White is hinting that life itself is poetry; that each person writes their own poetry with their lives and that the essence of a life provides its own meaning, one that is separate to God and religion. 

Although White is rightly considered to be one of literature’s greats, I realised that his writing is deeply unfashionable, in Australia at least. Looking around online I found that I wasn’t the only one to come to this conclusion. I mostly agree with the author of this piece, that White’s modernist style dates his writing, that it is perhaps too dark for most and that the fact that he was Australian makes him peripheral on the world stage. However the notion that ignoring his work has become a bad habit that persists is the most persuasive, and this was certainly true in my case. I ignored White for far too long, so I‘ll end by advising others to not perpetuate this trend, do yourself a literary favour and read Patrick White.

Sunday 3 November 2013

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion (2013)

The Rosie Project provides a perfect opportunity to examine the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction. The previous book I read and reviewed, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), epitomizes literary fiction. Wallace’s prose style is erudite, dense and complex. Infinite Jest’s plot is multilayered, the characters motives are influenced by their often dark psyches and the narrative explores humanity’s struggle with deep existential issues, both in a personal and cultural context. The Rosie Project has a straightforward plot, simple themes, the characters motivations are easy to understand and it is written in a simple unpretentious style. Does this difference make one novel better or more important than the other?

If The Rosie Project were a movie then it would be a romantic comedy. The principle protagonist is Don Tillman, a geneticist and academic who knows many things about the world but is unaware that he has many of the characteristics of Aspergers. Don is frustrated that his efforts with women never get beyond the first date, so he devises a questionnaire designed to find the perfect woman who displays all of the attributes he believes will make his life complete. Rosie Jarman, is, of course, the complete opposite to everything Don desires in a mate. When Rosie seeks Don’s help to find her real father all manner of situations arise that both pull them apart and bring them together. The ending of the novel is inevitable given the demands of its genre.

The Rosie Project does indeed display many of the hallmarks of its genre, but avoids popular fiction’s tendency to be mediocre. The novel is well written, with a tight fast paced plot that doesn’t allow the reader much time to ponder about its lack of psychological depth. Don and Rosie sparkle when they are on the page together; like any good romantic comedy the chemistry between the two leads can make or break the narrative and in this case it makes it. The Rosie Project is also very funny. Don’s Aspergers-like characteristics allow for some fine deadpan humour and this alone makes the novel infinitely better than the excruciating The Finkler Question that I had to read for the book club a few years ago (I obviously still haven't gotten over it, and rightly so). 

The Rosie Project also has some decent themes to explore; rationality vs emotionality, tolerance of difference and the moral obligations attached to decision making. These themes are dealt with in the context of a fast moving romantic comedy and are therefore not explored in any great depth. The fact that the novel has no pretensions towards being a literary masterpiece means that such superficiality is perhaps of no great importance, but if this is the case then just what is the value of popular fiction?

Are the differences between popular fiction and literary fiction meaningful? Why do we read fiction? Is it for enjoyment or for something more important? Literary fiction can challenge in an artistic sense, it can raise important issues and explore them deeply and it can make us think about what it is to be human. These issue are all valuable and do make make literary fiction important culturally. However it is also beneficial to read for enjoyment and relaxation, and that’s where popular fiction comes into its own. Popular fiction can be psychologically comforting, whilst literary fiction can often be the opposite (but not always, of course). If popular fiction’s aim is to comfort and entertain then that certainly has value.What Infinite Jest and The Rosie Project have in common is that they both achieve what they set out to do within the context of their own genres. I would not have read The Rosie Project if it hadn’t been chosen by my book club members, but I’m pleased that I did because it has reminded me that well written popular fiction does have its place and can be well worth reading.