Australian fiction

Crossing That Bridge: Heather Rose’s ‘Bruny’ Blunder

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Seen the road to hell lately?

It’s a mess. Paved with good intentions, the path to perdition is littered with bad decisions, the failed forays of famous folk who sought success in a speciality other than their own.

Many are called to cross-over but few are chosen…

Singers and sportsmen, authors and actors – the line of wrecks is long and varied, taking in everything from Ash Barty’s crack at cricket to Chris Cornell’s dalliance with dance-pop.

Now the Tasmanian novelist, Heather Rose, has come a cropper.

Last year Rose published Bruny, the follow-up to her Stella Prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, a work of literary fiction. Billed as a thriller, her latest book proves that acing a new genre ain’t easy, even for an accomplished author.

What went wrong?

It’s a good question. Bruny appears to have all the hallmarks of a respectable thriller: a preposterous plot, a cast of barely credible characters, an awkward romance and a nondescript style.

And yet it lacks a key component of any self-respecting suspense novel.

Show don’t tell – it’s the shibboleth most closely associated with creative writing. Despite its limitations, this tenet holds true for some books. Take the thriller: readers of this kind of novel need to feel close to the action.

Too often in Bruny the real business takes place in the background, especially as the story goes on. The result? The tension never builds. (And the book garners praise as a ‘satire‘.)

Sadly, some parts of the story kept me on the edge of my seat: namely the narrator’s tiresome tirades about the state of Tasmania. Would they never end?

Despite my reservations – all totally valid, I’m sure, and yet totally irrelevant – Bruny continues to sell well here in Hobart, almost a year after its release.

Which just goes to show: I’m as bad a judge of another writer’s work as I am of my own. Failure is clearly more transferable than success.

Sweetly Sour: Lennie Lower, Antipodean ‘Plum’

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Oranges and apples can’t be compared – we all know that. But what about plums?

Well, you be the judge. See if you can spot the similarities between these two fleshy fruit.

First, a piece of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle:

He was profoundly stirred. It is not too much to say that he was shaken to the core. No father enjoys being flouted and defied by his own son; nor is it reasonable to expect a man to take a cheery view of life who is faced with the prospect of supporting for the remainder of his years a younger son…

And now a slice from Here’s Luck by Lennie Lower:

Problems innumerable beset the conscientious father, but the greatest problem of all is to know in what trade or profession the boy will be best fitted to support his old father at a later date.

Yes, both are about self-pitying parents – that’s a superficial similarity. More telling, though, is their matching moods, the light satirical tone that makes both excerpts amusing. Because this is what our two ‘plums’, Wodehouse and Lower, have most in common: both are masters of comedy.

We’ve all heard about the European ‘Plum’, as P.G. Wodehouse was known to his friends. He published scores of best-selling books, and is, some say, one of the funniest men who ever wrote in English.

And yet his southern equivalent, Lennie Lower – the Antipodean ‘Plum’, as I’ve dubbed him – is much less famous, despite being no less funny or prolific.

Born in Dubbo, Australia, in 1903, Lower served briefly in the navy before falling out of work. He started publishing humorous pieces in the late 1920s, and for the next two decades he wrote up to eight newspaper columns a week.

New Doc 2018-11-27 15.08.22Published in 1930, Lower’s one and only novel, Here’s Luck, was an instant success. The work has gone on to become a modern-day classic, a contender for the title of ‘Australia’s funniest book’.

And funny it is.

Set in Sydney during the early depression years, Here’s Luck is a tale of middle-aged male discontent. Jack Gudgeon has it all: a wife and a job, a terrace house and a teenage son. But aged forty-eight, worn down by responsibility and his routine existence, Gudgeon finally rebels, seeking solace and excitement in women and wine. Mayhem ensues.

His wife, Agatha, leaves him.

Here was I, a lone man, left to look after the house and Stanley, my wife selfishly gone off to her mother’s, leaving me to manage as best I could, with only memories for companionship. Deserted. Bereft. Alone . . . Hooray!

Gudgeon and his son, Stanley, are left to fend for themselves.

‘The trouble with some people,’ said Stanley, stamping on a piece of blazing charcoal that had once been bread, ‘is that they’re too well fed. There’s an onion behind the gas-stove if you’re feeling fastidious.’

Hounded by hoodlums and by the private detectives hired by his wife and her sister, ‘that parrot-brained Gorgon’, Gertrude, Gudgeon is unable to work.

Woggo Slatter was on my trail . . . Agatha and Gertrude would arrive with a gang of witnesses at eleven o’clock that night. I had lost my job; this did not worry me much but I put it in with the rest.

The destruction of the family home proves to be the last straw. As an ‘enormous green elephant’ walks out of the ‘flickering ruins of the gutted house’, Gudgeon collapses. He comes to in a sanatorium.

I’ve been out of hospital a week now. My life was despaired of and I suffered frightfully. The doctors told me that I had alcoholic poisoning but I know that it was something entirely different and far more serious. Something to do with a nervous breakdown.

Is it the fire that pushes Gudgeon over the edge? Or rather his realisation that he can’t escape his fate as a fettered man, his wife having forgiven him and a job having been found for him in a ‘little ham and beef shop in the suburbs’.

Either way, all is not lost. Gudgeon still has grog to fall back on. In fact, alcohol is seen as much more than a drink, as the words of the proselytising politician, Mr Sloove, suggest:

‘Gaze on your glass of beer . . . See how the lambent, lazy bubbles drift to the top, as men drift through life; linger a while in the froth, and burst of old age, or are cut off in their prime in Fate’s thirsty gulp.’

It’s shadowy sentiments like this one that distinguish Lower’s novel from the works of Wodehouse, which are invariably sunny throughout. For there’s an underlying sense of futility to the action in Here’s Luck, as if Gudgeon knows that his struggles are hopeless, that life itself is a flop.

It’s in this way, then, that we’re able to tell the two writers apart, despite their similarities. Both are funny, but each has a flavour of his own.

P.G. Wodehouse is the original European ‘Plum’, a Damson perhaps, and is large and lovely and sweet. Lennie Lower, on the other hand, has a tartness to him that doesn’t travel well, for he is an Elephant Heart, the perfect Antipodean ‘Plum’.

Goode’s, Better, Best: ‘Ladies in Black’ and the Growth of a Nation

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Aussie, Aussie, quite contrary – how does your country grow?

In three ways, according to Bruce Beresford’s latest film, Ladies in Black, a pointed, semi-poignant parody of life in 1950s Australia, a land where men are ‘gormless’, women are entrusted with the sacred task of putting tea on the table, and where a department store – Goode’s, the proud purveyor of robes and respectability – becomes the scene of social change of a far-reaching kind.

Based on a novel by Madeleine St John, the movie dramatises the workings of a trio of transformative forces – immigration, regeneration and education – by tracing three distinct stories: the tales of Fay, Patty and Lisa, the eponymous ‘ladies in black’.

Fay is restless and romantic, a good-looking girl put off by the boorish behaviour of the ‘Australian’ men she usually meets. Enter Magda, the stylish Slovenian mistress of Goode’s high-fashion department. She introduces Fay to an urbane ‘refo’ called Rudi, and the two fall swiftly in love. Vowing to learn the ways of her husband-to-be, Fay sets out on a new path, her life – and the life of the nation – irrevocably altered by immigration.

Her pal behind the counter, Patty, has a different problem: her husband hardly touches her. A shy boy from the bush, Frank is deeply ashamed of his desires. He worships women, and the thought that he might have harmed his wife drives him briefly into exile. By putting Frank’s fears to rest, Patty succeeds in remaking her man, who, in a matching act of regeneration, plants the seed that will see them grow up and out of themselves, out of the old world and into the new.

For sixteen-year-old Lisa (née Leslie), it is learning that promises to free her from the present. A ‘clever girl’ who goes to Goode’s as a temp, Lisa loves literature – she reads Anna Karenina on a park bench before reciting poetry later in bed – and has her heart set on going to university, despite the objections of her philistine father. An actress, a poet, a novelist – there’s no limit to what Lisa thinks she can be. And, thanks to the reformative power of education, her future does indeed look bright.

By movie’s end, the lives of these three ‘ladies in black’ have been altered forever: powerful forces have dispelled the darkness and led them into the light of a remodelled land. Like the film itself, which, it must be said, makes only mildly amusing viewing, this vision of national growth is simplistic and sentimental. Therein, though, lies its charm.

From Goode’s to better, Australia awaits its best.