Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 26, 2012

Great Western Highway (2012), by Anthony Macris

Sometimes, though not always,  a paucity of reviews about a book is a bit of an indicator that it hasn’t been as well received as the author and publisher might have hoped.  I know this because I’ve heard it said on radio that some reviewers in the small pool of Australian reviewing would rather not review a book than say anything negative about it.  Many know the author personally; many reviewers are authors themselves and this makes them sensitive to the hurt.  They know how much work and effort goes into the book; they would rather say nothing. So the book goes mostly unremarked, leaving the hapless reader about to shell out $30 for a book none the wiser.

Books, of course, are a matter of taste, and sometimes a book simply doesn’t suit a reader.  It can be that they don’t care for the genre, or  the style, or it may just be that the book touches a raw nerve for some reason.  I remember that Solzhenitsyn’s allegorical Cancer Ward was required undergraduate reading for me when my beloved father-in-law was dying of cancer and I couldn’t bear to read it.  Nothing to do with the book; everything to do with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that I was suffering at that time. 

I’ve been thanked by authors for my ‘kind’ reviews, and my response has always been ‘I don’t write kind reviews, I write honest ones’.  My loyalty is to the reader not to the author or the publisher – and if I’m not keen on a book, I say so.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I found Great Western Highway not much to my taste.  I’m not much of a fan of the relationship novel anyway but this one had promised to be more than that.   Anthony Macris is an award-winning author whose first novel Capital: Volume 1  won him Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist 1998, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Southeast Asian section) Best First Book in the same year.   He’s Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney.  His memoir, When Horse Became Saw: A Family’s Journey Through Autism was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012.    J.M. Coetzee, Nobel Laureate, wrote a laudatory blurb on the back cover of Great Western Highway.  I had high expectations indeed.

Great Western Highway is billed as a book which ‘is played out against the backdrop of capitalism and the rise of the digital age’.  Nick and Penny, a couple said to be young (at 30-something!) have lived their lives so far without being sucked into the usual career path pattern.  For various reasons, they have chosen low-paid casual jobs which makes it difficult for them to take the next step in their relationship.  Marriage is supposed to mean buying the house, paying off some of the mortgage and then having children.  But if you’re not in a position to buy the house in over-priced Sydney, the relationship is apparently all a bit fraught, and that’s how it is for Nick and Penny in this novel.

Amanda Lohrey, who’s just won the Patrick White Award traversed similar territory to some extent in her stylish novella Vertigo.  She sketches the housing affordability crisis alongside the materialism of Sydney life, and so in different ways did Fiona McGregor in Indelible Ink.  These authors are interpreting what in some quarters is derisively referred to as a First World Problem, but it is a real enough issue in Australia and I usually like books that tackle contemporary issues.

The difference is in the detail.  Macris goes overboard.  IMO a wiser editor would have pruned the first chapters by two-thirds.  We do not need to know about every single crass advertising hoarding that Nick passes by on his walk to Penny’s.  It takes nine pages for him to take some money out of an ATM in a bank that has advertising posters that absorb his interest, and it is not until page 50 that he reaches his destination, noting every shop, every consumer product and every advert on his way.  (The book is 333 pages long, and then there’s an Author’s Note of some considerable length as well).

Maybe it’s just me.   My letterbox is signposted not to get junk mail, I use technology to filter out email spam, I don’t watch commercial TV and I don’t listen to commercial radio.  I’ve never watched a tabloid ‘current affairs’ program in my life.  Maybe I am immune to all these things which so trouble the couple created by this author.  Whatever the case, just as I tune out to advertising and slogans and tabloid news so that I don’t even see them when they are right under my nose, I  found myself skipping the onerous slabs of text about them in this chapter.  That’s fatal, of course,

The chapter introducing Penny suffers from the same surfeit of detail about her work and the techno-babble that surrounds her, right down to listing the emails she deletes from her inbox.  I understand that Macris is trying to show that this couple are drowning in a bombardment of adverts, slogans,  so-called news and digital trivia but bombarding the reader with it all makes for tedious reading.  Proust could get away with this level of detail but I don’t think that Macris has.  Before long, I had lost interest in Penny too.

In the chapter ‘Roses All the Way’  the novel goes on to explore the mind of Maggie Thatcher and her view of capitalism in a stream of consciousness single paragraph of about 45 pages, a stylistic device that Macris explains in a somewhat academic treatise at the end of the novel.   Let’s just say that I found Molly Bloom’s soliloquy much more fun to read…

It just so happens that I have just finished reading Aldous Huxley’s critique of a technocratic society subject to mindless consumerism in Brave New World.  (My review is here).  Amongst other things Huxley’s novel also explores the way love and relationships are sabotaged by powerful forces beyond the control of the individual.  Perhaps Huxley has coloured my reading of Great Western Highway too.  Attempting to warn us about the same dangers of passivity, Great Western Highway lacksthe humour and passion that make Brave New World compelling reading and have ensured its place in literary history for many years to come.

But don’t take my word for it.  There’s not much around online to balance my opinion  about this book, [now, 29.12.12, see my update below] but this is what J.M. Coetzee has to say on the cover blurb:

A young man, blessed with a sharp intelligence but not much in the way of intuition, struggles to make sense of the women he is involved with and of the never-ending cascade of images forced upon his attention by global culture.  Great Western Highway offers a striking record of what life is like when the barriers between public and private space are everywhere giving way.

And The Happy Antipodean, (the only review I could find online) thinks this is a terrific book.   Matthew de Silva in his review felt that

Every now and then you come across something so strange and beautiful, so different, that you feel as if the big wheels that make up the superstructure of the artform have just shifted a bit. For me, reading this novel was like this.

Perhaps if I had persisted with it I might have found that shift too.  But life is short and there are many other books to read…

There are book group notes at UWAP.

Update 29.12.12:  The Australian has published a review by Geordie Williamson today.  With the benefit of having read Macris’s first novel and David Foster Wallace too, he found the novel  ‘difficult at times but not opaque‘ and that ‘the hallucinatory monologue by Thatcher that serves as the novel’s thesis and hinge‘ is the best section.  While he also mentions the ‘finicky detail‘ he writes that the author’s insights – into the ubiquity of media and advertising, the “casualisation” of employment, the growing inequality that marks our cities, reflected in an obsession with home ownership and real estate – [do not] miss the mark.  He summarises it like this:

Great Western Highway is not an unblemished success. Macris faces the same problem of David Foster Wallace and others of his generation: that of drawing a world that has become too complex and too dispersed to contain within the novel form. It does represent a brave effort by a talented writer, however: a book that thinks harder about the world and its representation than many of the prettier, more palatable fictions we celebrate.

Author: Anthony Macris
Title: Great Western Highway
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australian) 2012
ISBN: 9781742584157
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP

Fishpond: Great Western Highway: a Love Story

Or direct from UWAP: Great Western Highway

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