Friday, 4 October 2013

Book Review - Great Western Highway by Anthony Macris

Great Western Highway : a love story (Capital, Volume One, Part Two) by Anthony Macris

Crawley, Western Australia : University of Western Australia Press, 2012

ISBN 9781742584157

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. I was directed to this book by a review in the Sydney Review of Books, which, despite it's pretensions, is a website worth visiting from time-to-time.

As  a reader might suspect from the book's full title, there is meant to be quite a lot going on in this novel, and there is. The bare bones of the "plot" though, are fairly simple to relate. We meet Nick as he walks from his flat along Parramatta Road to his ex-girlfriend Penny's house for dinner. Along the way he thinks about their romance, as well as Christina who left him some years ago in London and who he considers his true love. During his walk we are treated to a forensic overview of the shops, cars and advertising that define this major thoroughfare.

The next section shows us Penny at JobClub, a Government-funded employment assistance agency. Penny is nervous as she is having her yearly evaluation, which is not helped by her co-worker Lawrence, who is trying to move his girlfriend into Penny's job. After the evaluation the CEO of JobClub, Joy, explains to Penny that in six months the Government will be closing JobClub anyway.

We then go to Penny's house where she and Nick have dinner and spend an uncomfortable evening watching a couple of movies, and then Kerry O'Brien interview Margaret Thatcher.

The next section - "Roses all the way" - is a bravura performance: we go inside Ms. Thatcher's head as she is interviewed by Kerry O'Brien, and she defends her legacy.

Nick and Penny end up in the same bed, but sleeping apart - Nick recalls his time in London, when Christina left him (and flew back to Australia). He had just lost his job, and the First Gulf War was beginning. Nick spends his time grieving, and watching the war on television. He decides to go back to Australia to have it out with Christina, only to find that she is returning to London.

The final section of the book sees a confrontation between Nick and Penny on Parramatta Road, where their relationship hangs in the balance - both of them see the need to move to a new level of commitment, and the novel ends on a hopeful note.

Of course there is much more to this novel than the bare bones I've outlined here - something that Macris tells us in his "Author's note" at the end of the book, which is followed by footnotes and sources. I guess this note, that explains how Macris wrote the book to show how capitalism has infected our lives, even to the depths of love, makes this book postmodern literature - although to me this book has many modernist touches - not least the Maggie Thatcher section with her thoughts running into the answers to O'Brien's questions, which reminds the reader of the Molly Bloom section of Ulysses (Macris explicitly links this section to Joyce in his "note").

In many ways the Thatcher interview is the central section of this book, and is a wonderful piece of writing. Thatcher senses O'Brien's questions almost before they are coming, and the internal monologue between her answers (which are printed verbatim in italics) reads wonderfully as one would imagine she would think. Given Macris' "note", and the other actions of the main characters, I assume that Macris thinks Maggie's philosophy of life is wrong, so it's to his credit that this section is a convincing argument on why many of her policies actually make sense. At first this section seems like it is dumped into the novel, but as Maggie's monologue goes on the reader sees that Thatcher's philosophy of freedom and supporting people who have the gumption to lift themselves out of the ruck contrasts with Nick and Penny, who are letting life pass them by, not being able to care enough about each other or themselves to make any meaningful changes to what they are doing, and descending slowly into what can only be described as existential despair.

The depths of Nick's despair, which occurs in the novel when Christina leaves him and he's trapped in his dingy London flat with the 'flu watching the Gulf War unfold on TV, also reveal an ambivalence about the hard left reaction to the US. A minor character spouts the usual leftist reaction to the war, the US and Thatcher. Nick's reaction is more nuanced - he's not sure what to think about the deeper reasons behind the war (he sees wrong on both sides), but is placed into what can only be described as shock by the power of the USA, it's control of technology and absolute ability to do whatever it likes. In fact Nick is quite amazed how the technology that gives him all the things he wants (he lusts after a minidisc player, which he can't afford) has been adapted by Governments to kill people. This thought is actually quite ironic as throughout history it has been the desire to kill people that has driven technological advancement, rather than killers adopting peaceful technology to their ends.

The ambivalence that Nick feels about the war is also reflected in his attitude to the capitalist world that Macris provides for him - he has a typical inner-suburban sneering attitude to careers, mortgages and everything that goes with that, but he still desires things (such as the unobtainable minidisc), and verges on bitterness about his lack of ability to aspire to such heights. While Macris contends that it is the capitalist world that has corrupted our ability to live fully, it seems to this reader that it is Nick's seeming lack of moral compass, or any sort of belief, that holds him back, and to a lesser extent the same can be said for Penny. Thatcher's monologue resonates around this subject, and again it's hard for this reader to discern which path Macris thinks is the right one to take.

While there is a lot of food for thought in this book, some of the writing is excellent too. Macris' descriptions of Nick's heartbreak are very effective - anyone who has had an important relationship breakup will relive the feelings of emptiness and heartbreak that come with that while reading this book. The hyper-real and hyper-accurate description of the shops and advertising on Parramatta Road is done excellently - a section that had the potential to be a dirge is quite a wonderful description of place and time.

Given that this book is the second of three (I haven't read the first: Capital : Volume One), I hope that the third volume might take us further on the journey that Nick and Penny are taking. This book is well worth tracking down and reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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