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December 01st 2009 print

David Free

What’s Wrong with Australian Fiction?

Once in a while, a literary prize gets awarded to the most talented writer in the field. Admittedly this would happen a lot more often if the judges of such awards simply drew the prize-winner’s name out of a hat. The Nobel committee, even if it occasionally pulled out the name of the hat-maker by mistake, would still obtain less bizarre results using the hat method than it does by applying its literary judgment. But still, when a literary award is given to the right writer for the right reason, you get a dim reminder of why such prizes were considered a good idea in the first place.

When this year’s Miles Franklin Award went to Tim Winton’s Breath, the judging panel got it right. I can vouch for this, a little haggardly. I have spent the last month reading and re-reading the five novels on the shortlist, in an attempt to measure the health of Australian fiction. My findings? At its best, in the hands of a Winton, our fiction is in beautiful shape. At its second-best, it’s encouraging but not first rate. At its fifth-best, it doesn’t even achieve mediocrity.  

Aside from Winton’s winner, the books on the shortlist were The Pages, by Murray Bail; Ice, by Louis Nowra; The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas; and Wanting, by Richard Flanagan. Before we look at these novels, I should make it clear that I feel no special obligation to indulge them just because they’re Australian. It’s no secret that a lot of local critics do this, and to a certain extent you can’t blame them. We live in literary end times. Publishing serious fiction is an increasingly risky venture, and we may soon reach the point where our literature consists entirely of cookbooks written by the national cricket team. Nobody, I take it, wants this to happen. But overpraising bad novels doesn’t strike me as a good way of preventing literature’s death. On the contrary: it strikes me as a way of bringing it about sooner. In an age when people don’t buy many literary novels—an age when any novel they buy might be their last—isn’t it more important than ever to help them steer clear of the bad ones, or at least make sure they get to the better ones first?

Louis Nowra’s Ice sounds, when blurbed, as if it might be one of the good ones. Its narrator is a translator who lives in present-day Australia. His wife, a biographer, is in a deep coma, having been savagely assaulted by an ice addict. Before the attack she’d been at work on a biography of one Malcolm McEacharn: a real-life figure who was a mayor of Melbourne during the 1890s, and a big-wig in the field of industrial freezing. The narrator, desperate to maintain some sort of living connection with his wife, takes up her researches into the life of McEacharn. What he presents us with is his version of the McEacharn story, along with some increasingly obsessive reveries about his comatose wife. As the novel nears its end, we gradually come to understand that the narrator has been madly inserting elements of his own wife-obsession into the McEacharn narrative. Nowra is an admirer of Nabokov. Is Ice his stab at an antipodean Pale Fire

If it is, it’s curiously lacking in Nabokovian flair. In fact, forget about Nabokov. Ice lacks almost any flair of any kind. For one thing, the postmodern framing device is hardly exploited at all, so that for long stretches the book is nothing more than a straight recounting of the life of Malcolm McEacharn—and not a very interesting one at that. Novelists, we’re often told, have technical and imaginative resources that let them bring history alive in a way that historians can’t. But Nowra writes no better than the average historian. His descriptive prose is unremittingly pedestrian.

This becomes sorely apparent during the novel’s opening sequence, a set-piece in which a giant iceberg, snared in the Antarctic by McEacharn and his crew, is towed triumphantly into Sydney Harbour. Such an event never really occurred. Nowra has invented it, with the apparent purpose of getting his novel off to a sparkling magical-realist start. But the scene turns out to be magical only in conception. In execution it falls flat. The prose doesn’t rise above journalese: “The milling crowd pushed forward, creating such a crush that dozens of women fainted.” And: “the crowd erupted in thunderous cheers”. And: “the women were resplendent”.

Even before the big set-piece is over, a sense of listlessness has settled over the novel. You fear that the going will be tough. And so it proves. None of the other books on the shortlist is so plain tedious, so hard to get through, as Ice. The prose saps you with its uncanny inability to dodge the oncoming cliché. This is a novel in which people toss and turn in bed, or bubble with anticipation; a novel in which merry throngs wend their way home; a novel in which surprised people can’t believe their eyes and let out involuntary gasps; a novel in which researchers squirrel through document boxes before poring over the pages inside.

But the clichés are not the half of it. I was about a hundred pages into Ice before I finally put my finger on what was fundamentally bothering me about it. The novel contains almost no dialogue at all. This is an odd quality in a novel that’s presumably attempting to bring history alive—doubly odd when you consider that the author of the novel is a playwright. But in Ice Nowra supplies dialogue only in meagre italicised snatches. And then, whenever an actual conversation threatens to break out, he dollies back and reports the rest of the proceedings as indirect speech.

This stinginess with dialogue is connected to Nowra’s central vice: his practice of summarising the events of his story rather than dramatising them. His unit of conveying information isn’t the scene, but the drab prose précis. Again, this seems a bizarre technical sacrifice for a novelist to make. If reading a novel about an historical figure sounds like a more enticing proposition than reading a 300-page encyclopaedia entry about him, that’s because we expect the novelist to render his narrative in vivid scenes, to roll up his sleeves and plunge into the business of fictional evocation. Nowra not only doesn’t do this; he doesn’t even seem to try. It’s true that his narrator does embroider the McEacharn story, around the edges, with some fantastic made-up details. But that’s not the same thing as inhabiting the story imaginatively. Nowra narrates things from high above the action, and the results aren’t conspicuously less banal than a Wikipedia entry:

Back in London Malcolm discussed the technical difficulties with Andrew who suggested they collaborate to find the solutions. The project began to take over their lives. They laboured into the early hours of the morning and spent much [sic] of their business hours poring over diagrams and debating mechanical issues …

All novelists summarise: in places. They’ll skim over things that don’t particularly excite their imaginations. They’ll hurry us across the bridges between key scenes. But it dawns on you, about halfway through Ice, that there aren’t going to be any key scenes. The whole novel is going to be like this. The effect is strange. It’s like watching a film composed exclusively of long shots. Not even at the moment when Malcolm learns he’ll never become prime minister—a pretty important moment in the man’s life, you might think—does Nowra choose to zoom in and make a scene of it: 

Once Andrew had sailed away Malcolm’s spirits lifted, only to plummet when his plans to become Prime Minister were foiled when he narrowly lost his seat in the Federal election … The loss had been a shock to Malcolm. He had underestimated his opponent, the socialist, Bill Maloney.

This, by the way, is the sort of stuff that the novel’s narrator reads to his wife in order to get her out of a coma. At the novel’s end, she remains unrevived. Ice is an astoundingly uninteresting novel. If Nowra can’t stir himself to make something of a moment like this one, you wonder why he’s bothering to tell us the McEacharn story at all. But I was wondering that anyway, a long while before I got to this point.

Wanting,” says the Canberra Times, “is a novel you never want to end.” Having been hectored by some of Richard Flanagan’s work in the past, I didn’t especially want Wanting to start. But parts of the novel, I have to admit, came as a pleasant surprise. If you chisel away Flanagan’s overwrought prose and his impastoed moralisings, some of the events described in Wanting are rather moving. Certainly as an historical novel—as a novel all round—it’s an improvement on Ice.  

For a start, the historical facts on which the novel is based are inherently more interesting. In 1847 Sir John Franklin—a former governor of Tasmania—disappeared during an exploratory voyage to the Arctic. Reports suggested that members of his party had resorted, in the terminal stages of peckishness, to cannibalism. Lady Franklin, the explorer’s wife, lobbied Charles Dickens to write an article rejecting the cannibalism charge, and Dickens obliged.

Flanagan takes the meeting between Lady Franklin and Dickens as the hub of his novel. Flashing back from it, he tells the story of the Franklins’ tenure in Tasmania, during which they adopted a young Aboriginal girl called Mathinna. Flashing forward from it, he describes the early stages of Dickens’s affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. At a structural level, all this is nicely handled. Flanagan shuttles us effectively from story to story, era to era, hemisphere to hemisphere. And he inhabits history better than Nowra does: he has a knack for making you smell the nineteenth century at its worst.

Nor could you complain that Flanagan doesn’t try to heighten his material emotionally. The problem is that he tries too hard. Wanting is a novel in which characters are constantly realising profound things. When Flanagan describes these epiphanies, he has a habit of revving the engine way into the red—even, one might argue, into the purple. Here is Sir John Franklin, after the “candour” of an adjacent character has led him to see things in an entirely new light:

And in his candour, thought Franklin, was some terrible truth that was compelling, some strange combination of desire and freedom, some acceptance not of peace but of the violence of which Sir John increasingly feared he himself was inexorably composed, the violence that he had begun to believe was the true motor of the world, the violence he sensed but could not admit to himself was at the heart of what had passed between him and Mathinna.

And here is Dickens succumbing to the power of love:

His head lay in her lap, her tears were falling on him like rain, and the universe was flowing into him, he was open to everything, it was an immense thought, a terrifying feeling, something at once outside of himself that had now entered him, a thing both wicked and exhilarating.

A pattern emerges whenever Flanagan tries to evoke something incredibly intense. He will speak of an obscure feeling that is at once x and y, a feeling that strangely combines elements of a and b, a feeling that is somehow c but not quite d. In the passage above, this approach gets him into trouble in the second-last pairing, where something “at once” x is badly spliced with something “that had now” y.

In such passages—and there are a lot of them—Flanagan sounds less like a man striving for precision than a man laying an endless series of each-way bets, or a man piling more and more logs onto a fire that just won’t get going. It doesn’t help that the words he piles on tend to be vague ones, like infinite or strange. Inexorable is another one of his favourites. It’s as if Flanagan gets the rhythm of these big passages in his head first, and then casts about for words to fill it. This would explain why the words he settles on are quite often near-synonyms of the words right beside them. In such cases, the policy of the each-way bet is replaced by the stranger policy of backing the same horse twice. So we get formulations like: “as though it were some sacred sacrament”. Or: “the script was—improbably, inexorably, inescapably—describing his soul”. Or: “something undeniable had been denied her”. In this last case Flanagan might well be attempting a deliberate paradox; but when a man can write a phrase like “sacred sacrament” by mistake, you just never know. 

The novel’s second big problem is Flanagan’s inability to write about Australian history without laying on thick dollops of sarcasm from the high moral ground of the present day. When Flanagan’s blatant ironies are larded onto a stave of his endlessly ramifying prose, the result can be tiresome in the extreme. Here is the Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, reflecting on the Franklins’ request to adopt Mathinna:

If the Protector was loath to part with that for which the Franklins asked, if he was failing to find Mathinna, he was nevertheless succeeding in persuading himself that he would hardly be abandoning the child to the scum of the penal colony. Rather, he told himself, it was to the very finest flowers of England, disciplined in habit, religious in thought, scientific in outlook … And their selfless goal? To raise the savage child to the level of a civilised Englishwoman.

What are we supposed to do with stuff like this? Join with Flanagan in feeling superior to the unenlightened minds of 150 years ago? It seems altogether too easy. Is it not a little puerile, for example, to pretend that someone who used the word savage back then was as laughable as someone who would use it today? Flanagan is far too fond of this sort of effect. Does he not trust us to catch his drift?

Told simply, and left to speak for itself, the story of Mathinna’s decline from bright young girl to tragic drunk would present us with a moving parable of the Tasmanian Aboriginal tragedy. But Flanagan won’t let it speak for itself. He is constantly stepping in from the wings with the finger-quotes raised and the bullhorn whining, eager to reassure us that he disapproves, in the strongest possible terms, of what’s going on. Can he really think that these little incursions improve his novel? If he’d left us to draw our own conclusions about the Franklins’ adoption of Mathinna, we might have been forced to confront some unpleasant historical ironies. But Flanagan shuts down our inner dialogue in the most gross way, by inventing a scene in which Sir John rapes the girl. At this point our inner debate fixes on a new topic: how ethical is it to turn a real historical figure into a paedophile for dramatic effect?  

It really is perversely fascinating to watch Flanagan at work. He simply can’t resist the cheap shot, even when it leads him into obvious absurdity. Not content to make the white man look stupid, he must make him look stupider than he can possibly have been. This tendency fatally compromises Flanagan’s portrait of George Augustus Robinson, the man also known—and I believe Flanagan detects some irony in this title—as the Protector of Aborigines. Early in the novel, the Protector gives Mathinna a new Christian name, and is frustrated by its failure to stick. “Her real name was the one he had christened her with, Leda, but for some reason everyone else called her by her native name.”

For some reason? One was ready to take one’s medicine, and accept that a man like the Protector was wicked, crass, and all the rest of it. But to accept that he was too stupid to see the reason why people would still call Mathinna by her real name—that is too much to ask. Putting the boot into the Protector too sharply, Flanagan takes out a chunk of plaster, revealing that the character is hollow inside. And by the way, if the colonisers really were so stupid, doesn’t that sort of let them off the hook morally? 

Writing about Mathinna herself, Flanagan proves capable of real imaginative sympathy, as when he explains her reluctance to wear shoes: “Wearing shoes, she felt as if her body had been blindfolded.” He extends similar sympathy, although not quite as much, to the character of Lady Franklin. If only he’d let himself grant a modicum of inner complexity to characters like the Protector, he could have written a far richer and more grown-up and—yes—more politically effective novel. But Flanagan the propagandist won’t let Flanagan the novelist go there. He seems to fear that investing such a character with a plausible inner life would be a politically incorrect act. So he settles for the punitive caricature, as if a novelist can correct an historical crime by committing an artistic one. 

When Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus won the Miles Franklin back in 1999, a well-meaning friend lent me a copy of it. I gave it a try, but I didn’t get very far. The novel’s first paragraph struck me as a bit of a deal-breaker. It went like this:

We could begin with desertorum, common name Hooked Mallee. Its leaf tapers into a slender hook, and is normally found in semi-arid parts of the interior.

If this little paragraph is meant to establish an atmosphere of quasi-scientific elegance, the effect is undone by the grammatical shoddiness of that second sentence. The subject of the sentence is the tree’s leaf. So what is the item that is “normally found in semi-arid parts of the interior”? Bail thinks he’s talking about the tree again; but grammar dictates that he’s still talking about the leaf. I suppose you could argue that this error is, as grammatical errors in the second sentences of prize-winning novels go, not really all that grotesque, since a leaf, even if it’s fallen to the ground, will generally be found in roughly the same place as the tree it came from. Still, one had to wonder what such a sentence was doing on the first page of a book that was meant to contain, according to the Australian, “not a false note”.

Bail’s new novel, The Pages, didn’t win the Miles Franklin. But it did make the shortlist. It’s a strange novel. You’re haunted, while reading it, by the sense that it can’t possibly be as bad as it seems to be. It contains, for example, sentences like this: “From his trousers, Mannix drew out a large handkerchief, blew his nose and put it back in his pocket.”

Again you could argue that the context helps to sort out Bail’s eccentric syntax. Since Mannix’s nose is unlikely to have originated in his pocket, we can confidently postulate that the item he puts back in there is his handkerchief. But in a minimalist novel, such clumsy sentences have a tendency to protrude. 

The events described in The Pages are set in train by the death of an enigmatic self-taught philosopher named Wesley Antill. Out in a woolshed a long way west of the Blue Mountains, Antill has spent a long time writing something that may or may not be a philosophical masterwork. When he dies, a professional philosopher named Erica Hazelhurst is dispatched from Sydney to assess the worth of his papers. A friend tags along with her: a psychoanalyst named Sophie.

This is convenient, because it turns out that Bail has some pretty strong views about the respective merits of philosophy and psychoanalysis. Philosophy he can’t get enough of—he relishes its cool, hard-headed determination to penetrate to the essence of things. Psycho-analysis, on the other hand, he considers an annoying form of modern self-obsession. His antipathy to it drives him into paroxysms of bad English: “In Sydney it’s hard to bump into anyone who isn’t in analysis, or has been, or is about to be.” Read that one again slowly. Do novels have editors any more?

When critics call Bail an elusive writer, they appear to mean it as a compliment. They seem to think he’s gesturing towards truths so blazingly important that the rest of us are scarcely equipped to contemplate them, except perhaps through smoked glass. This is always possible. But there’s also the possibility that he’s just not a very good writer. Maybe he eludes us because language eludes him. If, for example, we find that the following passage gets a little puzzling towards the end, is that entirely our fault?

At first glance you would think that the psychoanalytical person would understand hospitality, and be hospitable, whilst the philosophical person would remain distant to the point of turning away. The opposite happens to be the case. The psychoanalytical person plumps up the pillows and leaves it at that. To extend hospitality to another person subdivides aspects of their difficult, hidden self. And any suggestions of a food offering acting as a language is [sic] brushed aside: for it could only reduce the amount of language available to describe their own attention-requiring state of mind.

Once you’ve worked out what this means, and asked yourself whether it qualifies as even half-true, you have the deeper conundrum of what such vague, not-quite-literate pronouncements are doing in the novel in the first place. Is the speaker Bail himself? How are we meant to read his tone? Are we meant to take such stuff straight? I fear that we are. If Bail has a sense of irony, he possesses no knack of transferring it to the page. He isn’t, for example, funny. 

A similar lack of tone control haunts Bail’s depiction of Wesley Antill, the novel’s rustic Wittgenstein. We can’t possibly be meant to take this guy seriously—can we? There he sits on his uncompromising wooden chair, “scaling the tremendous peaks of western thought”, the books scattered around him pointing to “a free-ranging, seriously unconventional mind at work”. And there he is in his woolshed, wielding the pencil and the fountain pen, drinking his special brand of green tea, insisting the adjacent gum trees be cut down because they distract him from his headache-inducing meditations.

But at the novel’s end it turns out that Antill is more or less the real deal. True, it’s left unclear if he ever got round to writing his capital work. But we’re allowed to read some extracts from his notebooks, and they’re certainly no worse than anything else in the novel. Has Bail, then, been deliberately playing with our expectations? Maybe, but you wouldn’t know it from the text. If Wesley is meant to be a joke figure, Bail is eerily incapable of flagging this on the page. For instance, it never seriously occurs to any major character in the novel that Wesley might have been a total crackpot. Instead, with bizarre unanimity, everyone behaves as if any guy who declares himself an important philosopher is axiomatically entitled to be considered one. Everyone in the book seems to have an irony deficiency. When the matter of Antill’s unpublished “philosophy” is referred to Erica’s university, the university doesn’t suggest that the man’s papers, or even a specimen of them, be mailed to Sydney for a quick once-over. Instead Erica, who isn’t meant to be a fool, drives out to the back of Dubbo, and is prepared to stay there for as long as it takes to read the papers in situ. When she contemplates Wesley’s farm, this is what she thinks: “It was almost unbelievable that in this place one brother had been left alone for years and years—as long as it took—to construct a philosophy …”

But what makes her so sure that he did construct a philosophy? She hasn’t even looked at it yet. All this is a bit creepy. One has been conditioned to expect, from a modern novelist, a certain amount of self-awareness—an ability to stay a move or two ahead of the wised-up modern reader. If the novelist wants to create a fictive universe in which the laws of probability and physics don’t apply, that’s fine—as long as he finds some way of tipping the reader off. But Bail is a difficult man to work with. You never feel that he’s on your wavelength.

The novel’s crowning moment of weirdness is the coffee incident. Sophie walks into the woolshed bearing a mug of hot coffee. She and Erica argue. The coffee gets spilt on the papers laid out on Antill’s desk. The women make haste to clean the mess up, but something rather strange has occurred: “Most of the pages,” Erica finds, “were ruined.” This doesn’t just mean that they’re ruined aesthetically. It means that Antill’s handwriting has totally disappeared from them. “As they dried she saw the brown stain had wiped out the urgent additions in Mediterranean blue and the page numbers in ink too … A man’s life work ruined; made a mockery of …”

Does Bail know how plain weird it is to suggest that a spilled cup of coffee will have such an effect? And why are we supplied, at this hinge moment, with the spookily irrelevant detail that the page numbers have been wiped out too? And why, to get a bit prosaic for a moment, does Bail even need to make this whole outré episode occur at all? We’ve just been told, two pages ago, that the papers on the desk contain Antill’s autobiographical writings rather than his “hardcore philosophy”; and that the meaty stuff, if there is any, must be located in some of the other papers heaped copiously around the room. So there’s no pressing need, from a technical point of view, for Bail to get the stuff on the desk out of the way. Elsewhere in the novel, it’s suggested that real life has a way of intruding on philosophy. Has the coffee been upended for no better reason than to illustrate that

But we know already that Bail is more than capable of playing bum notes, so perhaps we’re seeking answers to questions that aren’t even meant to be questions. Or perhaps we’re being too doggedly literal. Bail, after all, is a man with higher things on his mind than hot beverages. This is a novel about the grand themes, about the struggle between philosophy and psychoanalysis for control of the modern mind.

But is it? For my money, Bail’s credentials as a critic of psychoanalysis are made to look a bit shaky by Sophie’s take on the coffee incident: “Already Sophie was asking herself whether the accident was willed. The subconscious is said to be responsible for many such interventions.” I have no more sympathy for psychoanalysis than Bail does, but I’ve read more than enough Freud to know that the master never used the word subconscious, except when insisting that it was a totally inappropriate and misleading term. Among psychoanalysts, the term in use is the unconscious. No practising analyst would be unaware of this. And Bail, who sets himself up as the scourge of psychoanalysis, shouldn’t be unaware of it either.

The novel closes with a series of aphorisms drawn from Antill’s papers. They read better than anything else in the novel. They read, in fact, as if they’ve come straight out of Bail’s own notebooks. “By keeping separate from people, I thought I could get on with my work.” In that sentence I hear, at last, the throb of an authentic literary intelligence. Perhaps the philosophical fragment, rather than the novel, is Bail’s ideal form. He has published notebooks in the past. Was The Pages an attempt to construct a novel around a chapter or so’s worth of stockpiled notebook entries?

If it was, the strain shows—in my view. But not, apparently, in anyone else’s. The critics have bent over backwards to find merit in The Pages. They’ve detected its essential weirdness: they could hardly not detect that. But they’ve been ready to find resonance in its silences, and profundity in its technical lapses, and humour in its humourlessness. They’ve been ready to do just about anything except revisit the received idea that the book’s author is a first-rate novelist. Apparently Bail has reached that level of eminence at which the work gets judged by the reputation, rather than the other way round.

But let’s turn to the good news. With just those three exceptions, the five Miles Franklin finalists give you the feeling that Australian fiction is in capable hands. Tim Winton’s Breath, in particular, really is as good as everyone says it is. It opens in present-day Western Australia. The narrator—a paramedic in his fifties named Bruce Pike—is called to a home in which a teenaged boy has died. The circumstances suggest suicide, but Pike recognises it as a case of auto-erotic strangulation. For reasons that will gradually emerge, this incident gets Pike thinking about his past; the remainder of the novel is an extended flashback to his childhood in the 1970s.

I’ll confess that I emitted an audible groan when it became clear that this was going to be the case. Another novel that retreats from the Australian present? But in Winton’s case you can’t argue with the results. A man who writes as vividly about childhood as he does is driven into the past by no agenda except artistic compulsion. When your memories of childhood are as sharp as this, you can’t not write them down:

The bus ride is my chief memory of high school—the smells of vinyl and diesel and toothpaste, corrugated-iron shelters out by the highway, rain-soaked farm kids, the funk of wet wool and greasy scalps, the staccato rattle of the perspex emergency window, the silent feuds and the low-gear labouring behind pig trucks, the spidery handwriting of homework done in your lap …

The kid on the bus is Bruce Pike at the age of fourteen, back when he was known as Pikelet. He and his best mate, Loonie, are tyro surfers. They get taken under the wing of an older surfer named Sando, who gets them to pit themselves against various increasingly angry parts of the ocean. In the course of Breath, Winton is obliged to describe a very large number of different waves. One of the marvels of his prose is that he keeps coming up with fresh ways of describing them. I doubt that surf has ever been evoked so well. On top of a wave, Pikelet hangs “in the boiling nest of foam at its very peak, suspended in noise and unbelief”. Under a wave, he goes “pitching end over end across the bottom, glancing off things hard and soft until slowly, like a storm petering out, the water slackened around me and I floundered up toward the light”.

Winton describing water is like a master improviser wringing ever more inventive licks from a limited scale. He keeps outdoing himself. The cumulative effect can be thrilling. Watch the way he develops this long passage:

All the way down the board chattered against the surface chop; I could hear the giggle and natter of it over the thunder behind me. When the wave drew itself up to its full height, walling a hundred yards ahead as I swept down, it seemed to create its own weather. There was suddenly no wind at all and the lower I got, the smoother the water became. The whole rolling edifice glistened. For a moment—just a brief second of enchantment—I felt weightless, a moth riding light. Then I leant into a turn and accelerated and the force of it slammed through my knees, thighs, bladder, and I came lofting back to the crest to feel the land breeze in my face and catch a smudge of cliffs before sailing down the line again.

But Winton has a good short game too: his prose is just as deft at catching small nuances of character. Here is Sando’s wife, registering the arrival at her house of Pikelet and Loonie: “Eva limped out onto the verandah long enough to see who it was before going back in again.”

This little calligrapher’s stroke tells you a lot about Eva. She has contempt for the boys: for now. That’s why she limps back inside. But the fact that’s she’s limped out in the first place suggests that she’s unoccupied, hungry for company. Later in the novel, when Eva and the under-aged Pikelet embark on a reckless sexual affair, she conducts herself with the same blend of need and haughtiness she displayed in that small moment on the verandah. She’s able to make Pikelet do things her husband won’t do. Specifically, she’s able to make him put a plastic bag over her face and wrap his hands around her throat during sex. This gives her the same sort of rush that the novel’s male characters get from surfing. Eva, it emerges, used to get this rush from skiing, until a serious injury deprived her of that option: hence the limp. And hence the extreme sex. And hence the book’s title. Pikelet, as a result of their affair, winds up in various kinds of institutions and therapy sessions. But the novel tends to bear out his humane verdict on Eva: “People are fools, not monsters.” 

About Winton’s dialogue I have a small complaint, a complaint so mild that it’s really more of an observation. Occasionally he’ll have his characters use, during the 1970s, turns of phrase that surely weren’t around till the nineties, if not the noughties. Would a child in the 1970s have mentally instructed his mother to “get a life”? Would one seventies surfer have said to another, “What’s with the budgie-smugglers?” I doubt it, unless this term entered west-coast surfing culture about twenty-five years before it got to the rest of us. 

There’s a related point. By far the best writer of the Franklin finalists, Winton is also the one whose prose is most heavily peppered with Americanisms. “He blew me off,” for example. Or: “he called me on it”. Whether or not Winton is right to admit these phrases to a novel about the 1970s, his ear isn’t wrong to pick up on them. Australians really do use a lot of Americanisms, and any novelist who doesn’t acknowledge that will be treating Australian English as a dead language. But there’s one particular barbarism I wish Winton had been less hospitable to. “There were,” Pikelet tells us at one point, “a couple teachers I didn’t mind …” One hopes the omission of the of is a typo. It will be a sad day when this hideous formulation is admitted to our language at the highest level, which is unquestionably where Winton operates.

To crack open The Slap, after reading some of the other Miles Franklin contenders, is like stepping from Plato’s cave into a shopping mall. Tsiolkas’s novel is unashamedly packed with the phenomena of the here and now: New Idea, Delta Goodrem, the Big Day Out, “the tell-tale canary-yellow bag from JB Hi-Fi”. It’s strange to have to use the “unashamedly” in this context. But the idea has certainly got around that one demonstrates one’s seriousness, as an Australian novelist, by pretending that such things don’t exist. Tsiolkas’s novel, while it isn’t perfect, provides a vigorous corrective to this idea. It’s several cuts below Breath, but it’s a clear standout among the Franklin runners-up.   

The action begins at a large backyard barbecue in the Melbourne suburbs. The kids are inside with the PlayStation and the DVDs; the adults are outside, talking about the kinds of things Australians talk about at such gatherings. Yes, we believe in public schools—but you don’t seriously expect us to send our own kids to one of them? The meat is served. Someone coaxes the children outside for a game of cricket. A three-year-old child named Hugo, who’s already established himself as a bit of a shit, is at the crease. There is an appeal for LBW, but Hugo won’t let go of the bat. The situation turns nasty. An adult named Harry intervenes. Hugo lustily kicks Harry’s shin. Harry raises his hand, and delivers the titular slap.

This act is the Big Bang from which all the other events of the novel fly out. Hugo’s parents have Harry charged with assault. Characters argue about the merits of the case. Friendships end. The fault-lines in marriages are exposed. For the novel to work, it’s important that the reader won’t believe that either the slapper or the slapee is entirely in the right. Tsiolkas pulls this difficult trick off nicely. On the one hand, he isn’t afraid to make the slap seem justified, or at any rate justifiable. Hugo is one of the most vividly drawn characters in the book, and he’s an eminently slappable child. His parents are also pretty appalling, with some cutting-edge views about the importance of letting their child run riot.  

On the other hand, the guy who hits Hugo is big, racist, unrepentant—even, it turns out, a wife-beater. In other words, Tsiolkas is content to live with moral ambiguity. Not just to live with it: to make a novel out of it. He lays down an open narrative and then has the artistic courtesy to step back from it, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. The novel breathes. It isn’t out to teach you a moral lesson. It’s out to make you think about morality.

In his non-fiction, and in interviews, Tsiolkas identifies himself as a member of the Left. But you wouldn’t be able to deduce his politics from The Slap. This is one sign that it’s a good novel. The Slap is dialectical rather than didactic. It has a large cast of characters who believe a lot of different things. They’re endlessly arguing with one another—not just about the slap itself, but about many other things besides. As up-to-date as it is on the surface, the book has the structural feel of a nineteenth-century social novel. It resurrects Stendhal’s notion that a novel is a mirror carried down a main road.

Mind you, no nineteenth-century novel ever featured a cast as multicultural as The Slap’s. In point of ethnic origin, religious affiliation and sexual orientation, Tsiolkas’s cast is almost belief-strainingly diverse. But he displays, refreshingly, no tendency to handle “minority” characters with kid gloves. Everyone in the novel says something a little bigoted or unacceptable at one time or another. The book has a bracing willingness to be uncouth. Sometimes it’s too foul-mouthed for its own good: the obscenities can start to make you zone out, like a mantra. And it’s candidly, indeed disgustingly, sexual. Rare is the male character who doesn’t, at some point in the proceedings, have his testicles roughly cupped by some other member of the cast.

The Slap is a long book, and a little shapeless. It’s full of incident, but I wish it had a few more literary graces to help the reader along: a bit more descriptive flair, a hint of humour. (There’s not much of that in any of these books.) There are solecisms. One doesn’t, for example, “unsheaf” a condom. I’m not even sure you can unsheathe one. A condom is a sheath. Rappers don’t “sprout” bullshit, they spout it. And you don’t “tussle” a youngster’s hair, you tousle it. Nor is Tsiolkas averse to reaching for the occasional off-the-shelf phrase: “Harry was rolling in money, riding the seemingly endless wave of the economic boom.”

But the novel has virtues that make you want to overlook such lapses. Tsiolkas’s language isn’t especially vivid, but the things he describes are. They have a way of sticking in your head. In all these books, there is no incident that stays with you quite as tenaciously as the moment when Hugo—still a breastfeeder at the age of four—unmouths his mother’s nipple in order to lean back and say: “No one is allowed to touch my body without my permission.”

People are talking about The Slap. They’re excited about it. At my local library, there are forty-two reservations on it. If you want to read it for free, you either have to move or wait until well into 2010. Are there lessons to be derived from The Slap’s remarkable popularity? Has the reading public had it, perhaps, with Australian fiction that fastidiously averts its gaze from the contemporary realities that Tsiolkas boldly wades into? Do people maybe want to read thoughtful novels about the country they live in now? If Australian writers don’t write about it, what writers are going to? Tsiolkas was the youngest of the Franklin shortlisters. If the literary novel survives, it’s heartening to think that it will be in the hands of novelists with his sort of attitude. He suggests a way forward for the Australian novel that does not entail a turning back.

By the time you read this, the Prime Minister’s prize for fiction will have been awarded. I can’t tell you which novel won it, but I can name a couple of novels that didn’t. Breath didn’t, and neither did The Slap. Neither of these books made the Prime Minister’s shortlist. Wanting, on the other hand, did. So did The Pages. Did one of these inept books win the country’s richest literary prize? I hope not, but it wouldn’t surprise me. A panel that has already deemed these novels better than Breath has exhausted its capacity to startle. Coleridge said that praise of the unworthy is robbery of the deserving. If an unworthy candidate takes out the Prime Minister’s award, the deserving will have been robbed of $100,000.

The Miles Franklin judges demonstrated, in the end, that they knew the difference between good writing and bad. But too many of the movers and shakers in our literary world don’t. They seem to think that a book’s “literariness” is determined by the seriousness of its aims, not by the quality of what it actually achieves. They gravely salute the authors who take on the grandest themes, even when those authors write less competently than the average genre novelist. If people really are ceasing to buy literary novels, might this constant overpraising of substandard works have something to do with it? Yes, these are hard times for the book trade. But if we really want Australian writing to thrive, we have to be ready to discriminate. We can’t afford to go on sending brave young readers into the paths of pretentious and shoddily written books, assuring them that this is what great literature is.

David Free wrote on Clive James in the September issue. Last month the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction was awarded to Nam Le for The Boat.