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The new writing: whodunnit?

Garry Gillard, 1981

One way to do 'new writing' is to write about it. And one permutation is to write about someone writing about something: about the subject of your own story perhaps. That is what Frank Moorhouse and Michael Wilding, for instance, have sometimes done. Let us inspect the evidence.

'Evidence': the term is advised, since writing of this sort makes new demands, bringing about a 'new reading' which sometimes casts the reader in the role of a detective contemplating pieces of a plot and trying to make sense of them. As the criminal conventionally leaves a trail of clues, some inadvertent and some deliberately misleading, so the games-masters of Australian new fiction construct plots full of gaps, red herrings, multiple possibilities and ironies. And as the perfect crime is the one solved by the perfect detective, so they write for an ideal reader who will decode all deceptions.

In forensic terms, Wilding's 'Bye bye Jack. See you soon' (published in his The West Midland Underground, 1975, and in Brian Kiernan's anthology The Most Beautiful Lies, 1977) is a case of missing identity. And as in Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the story-teller turns out to be the one who did the deed, the missing person here is the narrator and main character. Not that he is completely unknown to us, but that he is himself unsure of his identity, in a more metaphorical sense. To try to identify himself he gathers a great swag of clues. As he is an author, they are cast in a variety of linguistic registers and genres: he speaks, like all good suspects, with multi-furcated tongue. The gallery of types and modes includes lament and confession, a newspaper report, a publisher's blurb, bits of elegiac and epic poetry, a mysterious telegrammatic postcard, and quotations from Wordsworth, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James and Jack Kerouac (of course).

On hearing of the death of a formerly favourite author (see above for clues), the narrator proposes a Wake with appropriate readings. His account of its failure forms the substance of the present memoir, together with the kind of stock-taking that such occasions tend to provoke. This necessitates journeys into the past and descriptions of past journeys, and a consequent plotting of co-ordinates to draw a map of the country traversed.

The underlying structure of much detective fiction, in mythologists' terms, is a quest. And in this story too, investigative journeys have an important function. The narrator travels in 'real' space from England to Australia more than once, the first time with his Henry Jameses, and another with a cargo of Kerouacs, He also looks for clues in mental journeys into memory and imagination.

If he draws lines from 'that city on the Severn' to Sydney University, from an Anglia to a Hudson, from Professor Moriarty to Dean Moriarty to the Dean of Arts, from Elgar through Tchaikowsky to Buddy Holly, from Kerouac to kerouac there is the possibility that the lines might intersect at the same point X marking the narrator's location, in cultural as well as real space. The need to make sense of such 'clues', the gradual discovery of a half-hidden 'plot', leads the reader to review the evidence, to re-examine the witnesses, in a more intricate way than most traditional narratives (including ordinary detective fiction) would require.

Such lines also trace connections in time, which is another leading concern of the story, signalled by the 'soon' in the title. The narrative explicitly asks whether periods of time can be measured by the lives and deaths of individuals like Jack Kerouac. To explore this problem several time-zones are evoked. In the 1950s Kerouac's influence is felt by the narrator but not evaluated: then his death in 1969 causes a critical moment of reaction. Some events immediately preceding the composition are narrated, and some of the circumstances of writing revealed: internal evidence suggests 1972 as the date. Finally, meditation on the meaning of it all must be read as occurring in the narrative present.

The excerpts from On the Road included in 'Bye, bye Jack...' are, particularly interesting in relation to both space and time. One excerpt is concerned with a spatial search: 'Where was Hassel? ... Where everybody?' The other exhibits a time-structure similar to the story which contains it. Sal Paradise has long had a dream which worries him. He talks about it with two other characters in the recent past and meditates on it in the present. Furthermore, the dream is a quest: the dreamer is trying to reach the Protective City.

Drawing these maps is only one strategy used by the narrator of this story. Another is what might be called cataloguing: both of material possessions and of the contents of his head, his cultural baggage. The narrator is concerned not only about the relative value of his readings, but also, it seems, about the need to place himself in relation to them.

In addition to the quotations mentioned above there are references to Homer, Virgil, Marcus Clarke, Allen Ginsberg, and three newspapers. The narrator evidently needs to define himself in terms of his reading; and by the use of allusion and quotation tends to involve the reader in the same process. The comparison with Henry James clarifies the kind of writing in process here, and the kind of reading it demands. Whereas James thought that the difference between Beethoven and Schubert in two drafts of The Portrait of a Lady was worth the changing, for Wilding's narrator the point is that it is an insignificant distinction compared to that between James and Kerouac. In addition, he includes in the story itself the processes of his thought and the circumstances of his reconsideration. Early in the story, for example, he mocks the Elizabeth Bay's girl liking for Tchaikowsky and Buddy Holly; but thinking about Henry James's discrimination makes him retract this valuation.

The plethora of literary allusions not only tells us about the narrator, it affects the way the story must be read.  Allusions are reminders that the story is a piece of fiction that it exists in relations to its literary context as well as in the reader's imagination.  Characters are revealed as mere artefacts, as parts of a hidden 'plot' designed to conceal who is really doing the deed.  Whereas in a simple tale, there is only one register, in this kind of 'new writing' there may be several. They sometimes emerge in straightforward disclaimers, of the kind that say 'This is only a story'. Or quotation and allusion may be used to refer to the literariness of the story: an intertextual register. Or rhetorical tricks like puns may come into play, transforming one kind of thing into another.

In addition to the literary allusions, clues may be seen in different sorts of cultural artefacts: cars, for example. Dean Moriarty drives a Hudson, the narrator drives a Humber, and they both happen also to be names of rivers, and rivers are useful to plot positions: the Severn and Mississippi are opposed to each other. And their rivers also turn into puns: some of the party-goers are invited at the Forth of Clyde. Still more are drinking at the Vanity Fair, a concept patented by Bunyan and put to work for a different purpose by Thackeray, among others. Here the allusion manages momentarily to encompass both the literary and social dimensions. Anything may be used as a reference point in this cultural trigonometry.

Characters from different books are also conflated. When the narrator receives telegrams from Joe telling him 'Dean Moriarty forgives' (referring to the character in On the Road), he confuses this Moriarty with Sherlock Holmes's arch-enemy.  This may be because 'Dean' can be read as title (as in Dean of Arts, who is also in the story) like Professor Moriarty's.  Had he got the allusion right, he would have found a much more acceptable identification for himself in the Kerouac figure in On the Road, Sal Paradise.  But the older literature seems to be more powerful.

Wilding's narrator is trying to get closer to the facts, he says, by writing 'instant experience'. If he can close the gap in time between the event and his recounting of it, he must increase the chances of getting the account right. So he brings into the story the circumstances of 'this weekend', and even his meditations at the typewriter, as it seems, about the events and places described. He is doomed to fail. 'I've got this built-in delay ...' he says, indicating what Wilding obviously realises: that this delay is built into all prose fiction, that the act of writing is always separated in time from the events that ostensibly occasion it and the work of art in which it culminates.

The circumstances of telling are included as they become part of the nature of what is told. Perhaps the real problem now is to know what to leave out. A model of this is presented when the girl asks the narrator what he is reading. His reply includes not only the title, but also the price, the publisher's blurb, and some critics' responses printed on the cover. There is a point here about the nature of readership too: this information shows why people continue to buy the book, what the current valuation of it is supposed to be, what its market price is as an artefact, and so on. Being potentially part of the experience of reading the book, at least in that particular edition, all this is passed on to the reader of the story.

On another occasion, Joe notes down minute details of the narrator's record collection, since 'the story's about you'. This is of course another catalogue, like the earlier ones which the narrator compiles himself. He passes this one on as well.

Making the process of writing part of the writing itself results in a tendency to mix the fiction and the 'reality' presented within it. Joe objects to his name, for example. The kind of roman à clef that Kerouac wrote eventually allows one to identify living 'models' for almost all the characters, Ginsberg for Carlo Marx and so on. Wilding here plays with this mode:

And then Joe arrived, what a ridiculous name, why do you call me Joe, Joe for chrissake, why pick a name like that? Joe said. I don't think it's any worse than Carlo Marx and eventually I'll get a surname for it that'll redeem the Joe, just that I can't think of one.

Is it 'real' or is it fiction? This kind of writing deliberately straddles the line. And the effect is heightened by another factor: Joe is in turn an author who has also written a Wake story.

Wilding's story actually ends with a longish quotation from Kerouac which has the function of giving additional meaning to the story's title, since it is in this section that Sal Paradise realises he has a 'mere simple longing for pure death'. But the quotation has another function - it is a fulfilment of the intention: 'we'd've read something of yours, Jack Kerouac something from your books ...' The excerpt, together with the earlier one from On the Road and the numerous other quotations, provides what the Wake did not. A story about an occasion finally becomes a substitute for it.

Frank Moorhouse has also written stories that are purportedly about the abortive Wake, one of which (published in his Tales of Mystery and Romance, 1977, and again in The Most Beautiful Lies) advertises itself as 'The Jack Kerouac Wake - the True Story.' The narrator claims that 'This piece will refute ... [the claim] that Kerouac's death passed without notice in this country'. Literary scholars, he says, should record the fact that the Wake does not have 'legendary proportion'. But what the story really sets straight, rather than the events surrounding the failure of the Wake, is the relationship between two men, the (again unnamed) narrator, and Milton, the academic who attempts to organise the reading. Yet this is only part of the irony of the phrase 'true story'. Both everyday usage and literary context pose the question: how can it be true if it is a story? Moorhouse too is playing with the distinction between reality and fiction.

Take the point about whether anyone came to the Wake. Wilding's story has it that five, or perhaps seven, people attended. Moorhouse's 'true' version is at first emphatic that no-one came, then admits that one or two people came and went away again, and then decides that two students came 'to the room'. There are still other versions in the story, It becomes clear that the answer to the question 'Who came to the Wake?' depends not on the 'facts', but on the kind of discourse adopted, the degree of irony.

This point is also relevant to the other 'failure' in the story, surrounding Milton's need to have 'a classically complete homosexual experience' with the narrator. Here again, it is a question of language. Milton reportedly insists that the act was complete; if it was not, it was a failure. For the narrator, on the other hand, these categories are not exclusive. and the experience was 'sensuously complete' and 'very nice'. Similarly, the Wake was not a failure, ironically because no-one came: 'chrome chairs were wrong wrong wrong for Jack Kerouac.'

The Moorhouse story is somewhat less complex than Wilding's, however. It is written in two basic modes, one of which slides into the other. Beginning like a newspaper report (calling itself a 'piece' in columnists' argot), it continues as reportage, but eventually reveals itself to be a confession.

In 'Bye bye, Jack ...', Joe leaves the Wake party because the narrator is tired of his sense of humour. In 'The True Story', which 'will elucidate what in fact happened that night' and Milton's 'elaborate misrepresentation of my behaviour', there is an argument at the Wake party about the meaning of 'Kerouac', but the narrator really leaves, he says, because of the disagreement about the homosexual experience. The assumption in talking about the party in this way is that it is in some sense the 'same' event in both stories. Obviously it would be naïve to speak of the two narrators as 'Moorhouse' and 'Wilding'. A more teasing question, however, is whether it is possible to identify Moorhouse's narrator with Joe in the other story, and Wilding's narrator with Milton. When the stories are read together, the usual reading experience - 'believing' in them - is to see them as different versions of the same data, and the characters, therefore, as the 'same'. If it were a case of two historical accounts, the reader would try to judge the relative credibility of the versions in order to arrive at a definite sense of what actually happened. As we are dealing with fiction, or at least with fictionalisation, the question of the veracity of the tellers becomes part of the aesthetic experience of reading the stories, rather than something to be settled once and for all. Both writers are playing with the conventions of reliable narration.

Whereas Wilding's story does its own trigonometry, Moorhouse has a second Wake story of his own which gives a further set of co-ordinates, enabling the reader to get one more bearing on the (ostensibly identical) situation. 'Wesley's Brother at the Wake for Jack Kerouac', published in the Coast to Coast (1973) anthology edited by Moorhouse. is written from the point of view of a different character: an academic who knows Milton from the University, and who observes him and another character who is in some respects the 'same' as the narrator of the 'True Story'. The scene is the Wake party, and again there is an argument and Milton's friend leaves, but the circumstances bear no resemblance to the other accounts of the party.

Before the argument, however, there is a scene in which Wesley's brother explicitly describes an arrangement which would produce the kind of mutually self-reflexive stories we have been considering. He and Milton and a third writer, Carmel, are writing 'communal literature'.

 'It operates this way,' said Wesley's brother. 'Milton tells me over the telephone a key sentence from a story he is writing. I make a response to the key sentence while at the same time reacting creatively to his sentence there and then on the typewriter. I then telephone Carmel and tell her what I've written and she reacts to that and responds to it and then telephones Milton who writes some more and then telephones me again.

And that's not all.

'And readings,' said Wesley's brother ... 'what people say after readings we, incorporate in our stories - this is living fiction - fiction that incorporates all that reacts to it.'

If this then is the new writing, whodunnit? Why, the characters in it, of course. One of them also gives her ironic valuation of it: 'Sounds simply so avant garde.' And another supplies a motivation: 'It is difficult to understand why people write anything but fiction, seeing that the truth is impossible.'

Having discovered a motive, and some pretty suspicious characters, let us look at two more pieces of evidence. Another pair of stories is concerned with a half-hearted suicide attempt followed by a 'rape' of the unconscious victim. But this time, rather than two fairly independent accounts of a similar subject, one of these stories must be read as being subsequent to the other.

Moorhouse had prepared an anti-censorship set of three stories called The Illegal Relatives, but held up publication because he wanted to revise them, Eventually the printer went ahead with this volume without the author's permission. Included in it was something called 'The Oracular Stories'. It is necessary to refer to this earlier version, rather than the one later published as 'The Oracular Story' in Tales of Mystery and Romance, since it is the former that evidently provided the stimulus for Wilding's companion- piece 'The Nembutal Story' (which, however, he was to republish with Moorhouse's later version in his anthology The Tabloid Story Pocket Book, 1978; he also included 'The Nembutal Story' in his The Phallic Forest, 1978).

In 'The Oracular Stories' (really one short story broken into three episodes), Wesley is upset at the liaison between Milton, who was formerly her lover, and her brother - piquantly called Frank. She takes some nembutal, enough to make her comatose, and the narrator, a close friend, takes advantage of her unconsciousness to 'rape' her. This is the word used by Wilding's narrator in 'The Nembutal Story', as he speculates on the extent to which the other story has described 'real' events, and in the process gives a different version of some of them. This narrator's main problem is jealousy. He knows there was a girl who took some nembutal and another girl who was raped while unconscious, but in the previous story these things occur to the same girl. The possibility occurs to this narrator that the first girl might also have been raped, that is, that the story is true, a possibility made more likely by the supposition that the narrator of the other story is not supposed to know that such a thing has happened to the second girl, with whom he is still having an affair. However, the oracular narrator may have merely invented the rape with the intention of worrying the nembutal narrator, who is having an affair with the first girl. In fact, the latter is more worried about forced intercourse having occurred with the second girl, because he is also having a secret affair with her: they are in bed together when she tells him about it. His reason for writing his story, therefore, is to have his revenge on the first narrator: it will be the means of informing him about the clandestine liaison. But of course he may have invented it ...

'The Nembutal Story' is concerned also with a kind of composition which the two writers had envisaged: a story intended, not for publication, but for the destruction of publishers' readers and editors, which would work by the releasing of uncertainties. He wonders whether 'The Oracular Story' might be an example of this genre, a gift from its author to himself, so that he might construct further destructive mystifications on its basis. This is an explicit indication of the kind of game that is being played in 'The Nembutal Story', and warns the reader, though too late perhaps, which way madness lies.

If, then, there is a kind of contemporary Australian writing different enough to be called 'new', perhaps it may most usefully be defined, for practical purposes. in terms of the detective kind of reading which it demands. (And incidentally it is significant that in the last few years some conventions of detective fiction have been used quite centrally by certain other Australian authors, from Robert Drewe to Robert Kenny to Peter Corris.) Not only do various recent narratives bring the process of writing into the product, making its composition into one of its most powerful metaphors, but readers are brought in also, forced to recognise their role, and - unwillingly perhaps - to suspend belief in the fiction in order to consider it as such and to become aware of its nature, and the act of reading which it entails.

Acknowledgement: This paper was first published in Meanjin, vol. 40, no. 2, July 1981.

Garry Gillard | New: 9 October, 2009 | Now: 20 December, 2018