By Steven Carroll | HarperCollins | $29.99
Steven Carroll has now written five novels based on his experiences as a child in Glenroy, the suburb on the northwestern edge of Melbourne. The first, The Art of the Engine Driver, was a kind of hymn to the people of the raw suburbs of the 1950s, a suburban Under Milk Wood, and a determined correction of the dismissal of suburban life as philistine and unworthy of attention. Central to the novel was a young boy called Michael and his parents, the engine driver Vic and the sales demonstrator Rita. The novel followed their thoughts and memories over a single summer night, as they walked to and from a neighbourhood party, in a series of meditations broken only by the brief drama of the party. The Gift of Speed and The Time We Have Taken returned to these people, slowly building a fuller picture of the limits on their lives and ambitions, and shifting focus to later years (1961, 1967). Vic and Rita’s changing relationship provided the main structural strand, but each novel commenced in the context of a public or national moment – the 1961 tour of the West Indian cricket team for The Gift of Speed, the growing support for Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party for The Time We Have Taken. Michael’s increasing independence from his parents and his growing understanding of the world around him made his consciousness dominant by the third novel.
Spirit of Progress put the lives of Vic, Rita and Michael on hold in order to explore a moment when high art encountered people on the fringes of Melbourne. Going back to the mid 1940s, the novel explored a Carroll family legend – of an eccentric aunt who became the subject of Sidney Nolan’s 1946 painting Woman and Tent. The novel provided an intriguing tangential view of Nolan’s circle, giving Carroll the chance to consider more self-consciously the relationship between art and small lives lived in relative poverty beyond the interest of history. This is, of course, one of the things Carroll himself is trying to achieve in his series of novels. He is exploring moments in the lives of ordinary suburban people, the kind of people who rarely attract the attention of artists and historians.
For all the references to speed and progress in the titles, Carroll prefers to stand still and contemplate the past. His novels take the time to examine the possibilities of each moment from within the internal consciousness of each character. We learn everything from memories triggered by an event in the narrative present. Michael, in particular, is always looking backwards, often with nostalgia for his rapidly receding childhood and youth. At the end of The Time We Have Taken one of his friends, an artist, paints a commemorative mural for the suburb’s supposed centenary, which depicts all its people looking back at their past rather than turning towards the future with pioneering energy. Technological progress appears in the novels – diesel engines replace steam, cars get faster, television arrives in every home – but the suburb remains a placid, almost silent, haven of domestic life. Curiously, Vic and Michael become obsessed by golf and cricket respectively – contemplative sports whose longueurs are punctuated by moments of excitement. Perhaps this is what suits them so well to Australian suburban life.
Inevitably, in Forever Young Michael has grown older and left the suburb for a wider world – Melbourne’s inner city and ultimately Europe. He is now in his early thirties, on the point of trading his electric guitar and his rock band for the life of a writer and a trip to France. It is late 1977 and Whitlam’s Labor Party is about to be defeated for a second time by Malcolm Fraser. Typically, Carroll avoids the most dramatic and memorable moments of Whitlam’s career – his victories of 1972 and 1974 or the dismissal of 1975 – to mark the forgotten election that sent him from politics. Michael has written an article depicting Fraser as a Macbeth figure, crippled by the guilt of his accession to power, and this leads to a brief brush with Canberra politics.
His old university housemate, Peter, has become a Liberal Party functionary, and he approaches Michael to write sympathetic pieces for his party. This brief encounter allows the novel to reflect on Peter’s mistreatment of his lover in The Time We Have Taken, and see a pattern in his manipulations of women. Michael, too, feels guilt towards the women in his life; he has ended a love affair insensitively and neglects his mother. Political guilt provides only a distant echo of the central guilt of men about their behaviour towards women. (Vic is long gone from Rita’s life.)
But the technique that served Carroll so well in the earlier novels is straining under the need to move to a broader setting and more mature problems. The constant use of the present tense, shifting between the thoughts and memories of different characters, becomes relentless. And new central characters – Peter, and Michael’s grieving girlfriend Mandy – appear without the kind of background that elicits interest and sympathy. The two women suffering from the thoughtless selfishness of men, Mandy and the seasoned journalist Beth, are surprisingly fragile in the face of adversity, but they are sketched figures, rather than full characters.
Whenever Rita gets her turn to think, the novel comes alive. Now that she has left the suburbs behind she becomes feisty and engaged with the world, and she leaves Melbourne to travel to Europe on a tourist bus tour. This allows the novel to loop back to the subject of Spirit of Progress, with a scene in Tuscany in which Rita encounters two expatriate Australians in a village coffee shop. She recognises one of them as Sam, the now-famous painter of the woman and the tent. After this awkward meeting, Rita begins an extended reflection on her life and the relationship between ordinary people, like her, and the art that claims to portray them:
Not people but types. The types that they make jokes about on television, or put in books or on the stage, the types that everybody laughs at. Or that become paintings put up on the walls of public galleries so that everyone can come along and gawk. And it’s not you; it’s the way they saw you. And that’s just it. Once they’ve pinned you to the wall and caught you the way they wanted you to be caught – once you’re there and helpless and pinned up on the wall the way they saw you – that is what you become. It’s a sort of theft.
The other artist in the cafe, Art, begins a corresponding meditation on the meeting:
For it is almost as though she has stepped out of one of his paintings, stepped out of one of those anonymous peak-hour crowds, either going to or coming from work, and entered his studio, offering the nagging observation, “No, no you haven’t got me right, have you?”
He goes on to consider the nature of nostalgia and the way art preserves “mythic memories.” The juxtaposition of the two meditations is brilliant; it is the finest writing in the novel.
Of course, Carroll is offering a self-conscious debate about his own practice. Like Art, he is creating “mythic memories” rather than recording a real world, but he wants to defend his subjects from mockery. The importance of nostalgia as a source of Carroll’s art may be the reason that Michael’s adult experiences are comparatively unsatisfying; they are simply too close to the author’s present. It is the life of his childhood that excites his imagination. Michael travels to France to become a writer, confirming the novel’s suggestion that distance in place (as well as time) may be necessary to give an artist perspective.
Like James Joyce re-creating Dublin from Paris, like Art in Tuscany, Michael will have to rely on his memories of the Melbourne suburbs for inspiration. We are told that Art’s father was a tramway mechanic and his mother a shop assistant. We know that Sidney Nolan’s father was a tram driver – and George Johnston’s David Meredith is also the son of a tram driver. Johnston’s novel of Melbourne suburban life, My Brother Jack, is cited several times in the course of Carroll’s Glenroy series. The novels invite us to compare them with other literary and visual depictions of suburbs and small towns – including the more satirical versions by Patrick White and Barry Humphries.
When a novel invokes relatively recent times it calls on a reader’s own memories. Carroll relies on a shared experience between author and reader to provide background to the moments he chooses to explore. The passions and drama of public events have little impact on the main characters. There is, for example, no delineation in these novels of the importance of Whitlam’s government to Michael’s generation – this is mentioned only in passing. He also avoids any of the repercussions of the Vietnam war. These absences from the novels almost force the reader to remember them.
Carroll has remarked that he is not interested in writing realism, and these novels only distil a few drops of what a man like Carroll – or Michael – might have experienced. Real life in the suburbs is likely to include a noisy crowd of siblings and other relatives, school classes full of other children, people on buses and trains, tradespeople and salespeople, church congregations, fellow workers. Carroll strips his characters back to Michael’s immediate circle – he has no siblings and few friends, just his parents, some neighbours and girls he likes. In the earlier novels, Vic and Rita go out to work – Vic to drive his engines, Rita to demonstrate new appliances in the country – but they bring home no anecdotes, no stories of encounters with the world. At home, they hardly speak to each other as they withdraw into thought.
This slow turning over of the suburban experience is an ambitious project in the style of some of the great literary projects, such as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or Anthony Powell’s more sociable A Dance to the Music of Time, or even Philip Roth’s steady creation of a history of postwar America on the basis of his own experience. It makes one think of Patrick White coming back from Europe after the war to fume at the ugliness of the outer suburbs of Sydney. Things may look rosier at a distance of fifty years – or half the world away. At the end of the novel Michael sits at his desk in the French countryside recalling his mother’s voice: “Tell them how it was, behind the flying ducks and the laughter; behind the quaint feature walls and shadow boxes and ornamental boomerangs; tell them how it really was, if they should ever ask.”
Carroll’s extended version of the suburbs is rich with nostalgia under a peach-coloured sky. But readers will have their own views on whether this is “how it really was.” •