Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2010

Trap, by Peter Mathers

Trap, by Peter Mathers (1931-2004), is not an easy book to read.   Published in 1966, it won the Miles Franklin award, which is why I have it in my collection, and why I chose it as a title for the 2010 Classics Challenge, which I like to do with all-Australian titles.  However (and it pains me to say this) I did not enjoy reading it at all.

Mather’s landscape is an Australia familiar and yet remote. In 1966 Robert Menzies had finally retired (my mother wept!) and Australia had its first new Prime Minister since 1949.  There was conscription of boys too young to vote yet there was electoral support for the war in Vietnam.  Aborigines had yet to be recognised in the Constitution, much less as the indigenous owners of any land because of the bizarre legal fiction that prior to European settlement Australia belonged to no one (terra nullius) .  Post-war migration had brought European migrants, but they were expected to assimilate rather than retain any aspects of their culture.   Asian, African and Pacific Islander immigration was restricted by the White Australia Policy. Australia was insular in more ways than one.

Into this claustrophobic society comes Jack Trap, an enigmatic figure about whom the narrator, David David has been assigned to compile a dossier.  An urban mixed-race Aboriginal, Trap is both dispossessed and powerful because he refuses to conform to expectations.  He is notorious, but unknowable.

His name, of course, is symbolic.  He is entrapped himself but he also traps others and there also is a particularly horrid sequence where he takes a job engineering the gallows trapdoor for a judicial hanging. (The last man hanged in Australia was Robert Ryan in 1967, a hotly contentious issue that led to the abolition of the death penalty.) 

The narrator is tasked with finding out about Trap because he is an obstacle to a significant development project.    He is feared because he has penetrated the veneer of respectable Melbourne and with occasional bursts of violence he terrifies its citizens – though more often he uses lechery and deceit to express his contempt.

The slums and pubs of sleazy of pre-slum-reclamation Melbourne are contrasted with the glittering world of society.  (Well, glittering for 1967 Melbourne, that is.  Not a patch on society glitter of the 21st century). There are sour portraits of all types of rapacious industrialists and crooked politicians complete with darkly comic exposés of their shallow, fruitless lives.   The exclusionary policies of labour unions are exposed; the pioneer history of Australia consists of the violent exploitation of Aboriginal women and massacres of Aboriginal communities as a deterrent. Racism is all-pervading, both subtle and overt. Women are objects but they are also complicit in the complacency of their society.  The pessimism is unrelenting.

All of this is expressed in terse, staccato prose.  Here’s a sample:

Two women’s magazines spread coloured photographs over their centre pages.  The daily papers were generous.  Sally’s dark skin went well with her fawn linen dress and lots of guests envied her.  She was pleased to read of herself as Mrs S. Coffs of New South Wales.  The Steels didn’t like this for it suggested that Sally was a family friend and not merely an employee invited out of motives both generous and democratic.

The general regretted the lack of colour television.  He resolved to mention the need for colour channels to the Prime Minister the next time they met.  The glories of country life should be well advertised in order to stop the drift to the cities. (p142)

I found this prose style wearisome after a while, and the plot is hard to follow.  Mathers is so busy having a go at the objects of his scorn that he leaves the hapless reader floundering in a morass of characters and sub-plots from Trap’s sordid family history.  The book was probably innovative in 1967 and it had an important message for its time – but it hasn’t worn well, in my opinion.

Some aspects of Trap’s story draw on Mather’s varied background.  According to Wikipedia he studied agriculture at Sydney Technical College and worked in a variety of occupations including clerical work, gardening and landscaping, jobs in the wool and chemical industries and as a researcher in the UK before becoming a writer of plays, verse and novels.  These experiences give Traps’s travels around Australia authenticity.

After the success of Trap, Mathers spent a year in the US on a writing fellowship but returned to Australia the following year and published his second novel, The Wort Papers in 1972.  It was apparently also a satire.

I think Mathers’ work is long out-of-print.  I bought my copy of Trap through Biblioz but  there are also some at AbeBooks where – although the book is obviously rare – you can pick up paperbacks for a song or (if you are so minded) the occasional first edition for a modest price.

I can’t find any reviews of this book online.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Peter Mathers
Title: Trap
Publisher: Cassell Australia 1966
ISBN: none
Source: Personal copy, purchased via AbeBooks.


Responses

  1. What a shame you didn’t find this book enjoyable. It has faded from the limelight hasn’t it? I’ve never heard of it (which isn’t a big surprise to anyone really). Your description of the plot made it sound really interesting, and I was thinking “why have I never heard of this book?”. And then I realised why with your comments on the writing. Still an interesting post on an interesting slice of Miles Franklin history. I’ve already learnt something today, so maybe I can go back to bed on this misty cold Sunday morning….

  2. Hi Louise:)
    Misty and cold where you are too, eh? I think our tanks might be overflowing after this morning’s downpour, but the sun is making an effort, so hopefully the day will turn out well.
    I really wish I could find another review of Trap somewhere, I don’t like to criticise a book without having an alternative opinion from somewhere. It won the MF after all so there must be people out there who thought it was terrific.

  3. I thought I’d point to this review of the novel by comparison: http://www.ariel.ucalgary.ca/ariel/index.php/ariel/article/viewFile/944/919
    Best wishes, Adam Dutkiewicz

  4. Here’s one from the author Vincent Buckley: http://www.ariel.ucalgary.ca/ariel/index.php/ariel/article/viewFile/944/919

    • Hello, Adam, what a great article that is about Mathers on your blog – was it meeting Mathers that made you choose him for your essay?

      It’s certainly a comprehensive review – I take it that Ariel was some sort of literary review journal? Anyway, I agree with what Buckley says about the prose: “What dominates the narrative structure is the possibility, even certainty, of moment-to-moment interruption; in this, the prose presents edgy and distracted lives” – I think that’s why I found it so hard to follow.

      Your comment reminds me that I have been neglecting my project to read all the Miles Franklin winners. I shall try to redress that soon because I think it’s important to do what I can to add to the online presence of our literary heritage…

  5. Hi Lisa – I went through a time in my 20s when I read as many post-war Australian novels as I could. I found I enjoyed the humour and satire of authors like Dal Stivens, Mathers, David Ireland and later David Foster and Peter Carey. Most of these are out of favour now. I attended a creative writing summer school with Glenda Adams around that time too. I regarded Mathers as the most interesting case, as his stylistic experimentation and the range in his novels really appealed to me. One of the funniest pieces I’ve ever read, apart from Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’, was a Mathers’ story called ‘Rain’, which has never been published. It was related material to ‘The Wort Papers’ but he claimed he could not get the ending right. It was the length of novella in itself. I have recently been re-editing ‘The Wort Papers’ and the collected stories originally published as ‘A Change for the Better’. I’m not sure the estate is interested in having the books available agin, however.

  6. Yes, from what I recall ‘Ariel’ was a literary journal. I noticed since posting originally that one of Mathers’ friends, the academic John McLaren, has since published a book on the Melbourne literary world in the late modern era. I’ll see if I can find the link.

  7. http://www.scholarly.info/book/331/

  8. Oh, I do get cross with literary estate gatekeepers sometimes. There’s a book I reviewed on this blog once, (no names, no pack drill) where the Lit Executor pounced on something I said and so unpleasantly that I swore never to review another book by that author again – at least until the LitEx is dead and buried too, that is. So it does the dead author no favours at all.
    I mean, why wouldn’t they want a book re-issued? I can understand that sometimes an author has said that they don’t want a work published (Patrick White springs to mind) but once a book has hit the stores in the first place, it makes no sense to prevent re-issuing it.

  9. They might just think it’s not worth the trouble. I do know that ‘Trap’ was re-released POD by SUP about 15 years ago.

    • But it’s their job to go to the trouble! I’ve been an executor twice, it’s an awful lot of trouble, especially with the estates of artists where there are ongoing royalties, but hey, they shouldn’t agree if they’re not willing to do the hard yards. After all, they can always offload the trouble to a state executor if they can’t be bothered…

      • I’ve done my best but am getting a little tired of metaphoric doors getting slammed in my face.

  10. http://sydney.edu.au/sup/books/projects_cal_about.html

  11. […] other is Peter Mathers Trap, which, yes, Lisa has also reviewed. She found it hard going, but how wonderful that we have a review available online. Bloggers […]


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