James Ley, a critic I have come to admire more and more for the unerring way he can remain engaging and lucid while working with abstruse ideas, not to mention his willingness to lay about him with the jawbone of an ass if he thinks the occasion demands it, has reviewed this novel at more length in Australian Book Review, where with the extra space he has been able to write more reflectively; the image I have is of spreading ripples in a pond. There's never space for that kind of leisurely expansion of ideas in newspaper reviewing, though I was very glad to have a 12-1400 word limit, rather than the more usual 8-900, for my own review. One paragraph of James's in particular is a wonderful encapsulation of what's going on in Winton's writing generally, and pinpoints what he sees as a mismatch of content and mode:
What distinguishes Winton's recent work from a number of other writers with metaphysical leanings -- Flannery O'Connor, say, or Cormac McCarthy -- is that it does not try to evoke a palpable sense of evil ... characters are sometimes damaged and violent, but not irredeemably bad. "People are fools," observes Pikelet [the narrator-hero], "not monsters." This empathy can be double-edged when it is combined with Winton's visionary instincts. There is a generous humanity, an exultation of the ordinary, informing the celebratory domestic scenes of Cloudstreet ... But it is also why a self-consciously dark book like The Turning can seem dour and mean rather than tragic. Its air of fatalism appears confected and tendentious, because Winton is a high symbolist working in a realist mode. [My emphasis.] The same element that elevates his best writing can encumber it: meaning is forced upon his characters whether they like it or not.
Now that bolded clause is the most insightful thing I have ever read about Winton's work and it explains to me exactly why I have never been fully comfortable with it. I would have paid the cover price of ABR to read that paragraph alone. As it is, there is some fabulous other stuff in this particularly good (and, if I am not mistaken, unusually fat) May issue, beginning with a review essay by J.M. Coetzee on Fredric Jameson's The Modernist Papers that asks what is for those of us who have spent a goodly part of our lives in university English departments -- and that includes Jameson, Coetzee and me -- a very scary question:
... it is not hard to come up with materialist explanations ... for why there should have been a shake-up in literary fashion in and after the 1960s. What is not so obvious, what we need the assistance of the historian to understand, is why departments of English, in which overwhelmingly monoglot bodies of students gathered to read products of fancy written in their mother tongue, were ever called on to act as an accrediting agency for entry into the middle class.
Why indeed, she asked as she mentally rewrote a bit of her hypothetical autobiography. There's also an insightful and fair-minded but intermittently tart review of Helen Garner's The Spare Room by ABR editor Peter Rose (full text online at that ABR link), and a review of the Tony-Jones-edited collection The Best Australian Political Writing 2008. Other highlights include reviews of Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds' Drawing the Global Colour Line, which is one of the few books I've bought in the last few weeks, of Joan London's new novel The Good Parents (also fully readable online), and of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by one of my favourite bloggers, the brilliant New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.
There's also a lengthy continuation in the letters page of an increasingly unseemly wrangle between rival biographers and their supporters over whether or not Martin Boyd's death was suicide. Given that most people die of being themselves in any case, surely the line -- that distinction between suicide and whatever the other thing is -- is often greyer and fuzzier than most people are prepared to admit in any case. Martin Boyd was a unique figure in Australian literary history and part of a unique family in its cultural history, and the manner of his death is not one of the important things about his life. Let him rest in peace.