Trade Encroaching a Sacrament…
By Richard Marshall.
There is writing here, twisted towards poetic vibrations of disgust and horror, that’s inevitably funny in a wry desolate register, making the reading a degenerate pilgrimage:
‘The morning the spastic girl walked out in front of morning assembly with her undies down, bawling for her arse to be wiped, was the last time they ever had to sing “God Save the Queen.’
This is an image that works as a brutalized metaphor for writing itself, as well as being an example of Armand’s simple compulsive documentary naturalism, the other side of symbolic. The prose works as a spell of saturated life, a prolonged hallucinatory creation, a catastrophe held in the last resort of fundamental language where turmoil shrinks to shitty jewels of dismaying illumination.
This generational decade by decade account of Australia through the prism of a family across the 20th century captures the strange hallucinatory violence and elusiveness of its subject matter. There’s a presentation of the thoughts, feelings, actions and identities over time, but as each becomes more vividly portrayed it is hard to find the entity or entities – both conceptually and phenomenologically – that are doing the experiencing. Sensorily and bodily information are details that over the novel pile up into an enormous unity of delaying self-awareness . Everything seems like the episodic memory of re-experiencing where each alarming episode never gets retrieved intact and yet is recognizably the same entity, a fragment perhaps, but the same. The characters are presented at times as having thick realities, other times thin, almost disappeared or illusory ones. We’re experiencing the terrors of the seething original ground, its fierce boredoms and expressionist nightmares melting identities into fugitive spores leaving themselves behind like emerald ghosts.
Australia becomes an insane version of the Cotard delusion. The Cotard delusion is a condition where a person believes they don’t exist, that their bodies are decomposing and disappearing so that, as in a Beckett drama, they are becoming just a voice, or that they are a dead star in an inert galaxy. Armand’s characters all seem both hugely present and in life’s juice and simultaneously dead, as if rent of brain, nerves, chest, stomach, intestines – left, as Cotard described one of his patients, as thinking that she was just skin and bone. Without gods and devils these patients feel that only fire can save them, existing eternally unless burned away. In this state characters are melancholic and anxious, insensitive to degrees of pain and mix delusions of nonexistence with immortality.
Armand’s brilliant novel captures this sense of delirium , where his Australian characters seem to live in worlds of intractable and impenetrable loss of affective responses to the world, a world as fleshy and stenching out as you need imagine. Armand’s writing is perceptual, vivid, senses drenched – and so the visceral and bodily responses are foregrounded throughout. Yet by so doing his writing connects us to the neural circuits that instantaneously appraise the perceptions felt along the dimensions of the hedonic, the prudential, dangerous, noxious, nourishing and so on, a buckled sensory array that each organismic character is relating to. These are the bed rock of Armand’s writing, whereby he reenacts as simulations the raw material of biographical narratives whilst showing that these are selves that depend – overdepend – on the bodily stimuli. Without that, they lose a sense of self-identity, as if they have lost in some very distinctive way, a necessarily personal perspective on the information. This may seem wrong – these are characters dwelling in their own perspectives it may seem at first – but the gross bodily thisness of their lives diminishes their sense of being there in the narrative, of owning their own stories. This is intensely brilliant. Armand has enabled us to see the distressing events (they are nearly all distressing) that charge the book’s dramas whilst at the same time showing a sort of inability of the characters to access affective responses that would seem appropriate. These are characters largely faring badly in their worlds but there seems a diminished awareness of this – and a diminished sense that they can do anything about it. These are depersonalized selves acting almost as a collectively owned extreme depression. Novel scenes carry the disturbing weight of familiarity, and so become déjà vu episodes that refuse surprise. A childhood scene literally seems to be a re-run of Huck Finn but relocated:
‘Short-arse though he was, Buzik was the undisputed king of the tall tale. He could cook-up an adventure out of anything. One day he came to school with a copy of Huckleberry Finn and decided their gang was going to build a raft. Buzik, Lach, Robbo and Robbo’s lisping kid brother, White-as-Wayne. He drew up the plans from a Scout’s handbook. To make a raft, he explained, first you had to find some empty forty gallon drums, then some timber to make a frame, some rope to square-lash the drums to the timber, and finally some planking to build a deck. There was a dam just off South Liverpool Road he knew about, past Wilson’s, all they had to do was find the stuff they needed and get it there, then they could lie about on the water pretending they were floating down the Mississippi.’
The authenticity of the characters and their embodied sensations become sorts of delusional episodes, imposters, far too true to be anything but errors. The prose enacts a sort of epic paranoid narrative across the century. Each terrible act seems to predict and reinforce what is to come, as if the delusional responses become strengthened each time. Motherhood here is a post-natal depression that sees Australia itself as an alien, or replaced. The authorial hyper-vigilance results in the intense sense of pathology, dysfunction and existential crisis that pervades the book, scaling up the traumas of attachment and disjunction so that the world becomes portrayed as detached, inanimate and unreal. This is achieved by the almost hyper-naturalism of the writing where this augments in a peculiar way the distress and deactivated life responses of the characters. By being thoroughly embodied we feel a diminution, despite everything, of the subjective reality of these selves, of their engagement and what their experiences mean to them. The descriptive weight of the writing emphasizes the gain in objective reality at the expense of the subject’s experience of it. In this sense the prose itself is an act of violence. It enables us to tear apart the sensing states of the characters, and we’re left wondering whether the details are an illness or an emotional episode. Characters are perpetually primed to take avoidance action – and again we ask – is this a feeling or an illness? Or something else altogether? Armand keeps the unsettlements coming throughout: a finite presence in perpetua is at odds with the century long immersion with this group of characters. And what we get throughout is the awareness of the paradoxical state of these characters who have no emotions because they are so unhappy.
Each character becomes an embodied mind but one whose isolation is ordered by its intersubjective relationships with their own bodies and those of others. Armand presents raw and damaged mirror properties that each character reflects out to each other, shedding light on subjective dimensions and an intercorporeality that makes the novel become denser and better attuned to the defilements of the century, richer in empathized pain. Subjects are articulated in experience, and we learn how they loop back through their environments to attain some sort of internalization of what is happening. But Armand doesn’t let us dissect the sensational from the judgmental. Illusions are an unmasking of errors. Armand’s use of newspaper articles and adverts from the decade gives the reader enough for this comparison and judgment. The immediacy of the writing works off these, and helps confirm that Armand is right on target. His novel works like a sequence of gestalt constructions, the meaningful, emerging from the sensory core of his fractal imagination, holds steady the appalling spectacle of this intimate vastation.
One way of looking at these characters is to see them as interiors visibly exhibited in the exteriors, as forms of reality’s contempt for them. They are brief likenesses , planes of derivation and resuscitation that could go either way, up or down, well or badly, where their reality comes after their bodies, after the world has ended up in the present, where all history must end. Sex and violence edge their way to the surface of each hot section, a dark comedy of illness, narrowness and aphrodisiacal oppositions. What oppositions? The characters are coping with an external circumstance, a world of collapsing values, affliction and narrow, cynical resuscitation whilst connecting with infantile calamities of sexual desire, play and gritty indulgence. This is a whole wide world that gets boxed into a doomy Calvinistic mono- culture as thinly spread, bitter and eventually snobby as anything imagined in no-surrender Belfast or Apartheid Pretoria. This is a culture extravagantly philistine, guaranteeing its chemical disillusionment with tv sets, racism, repressed phallic energies and an overweening hygiene fetish.
If there’s anything here it is little more than a biological glee that carries the characters to a wriggling deathlessness, too hopeless, barren and naive to rise to tragic joys. The plenum imagined by Armand here is one that recounts a vast mystery of affective terrible infinite life, the riches of the busily-working patterns of the prose contrasting with the sullen hard realities evoked to make the tribal resonances a national, mythical density, a private and simultaneously universal chain of elementary beings struggling in a wild cosmic flow Armand dismantles, restores, surrenders, discovers, remakes, dreams and abandons to a world of written, speechy metamorphoses and flights. There is no limit to how deeply Armand wants us to go, his intuitions drag us all the way with him, and down-to-earth inflects more than one resonance in this – it’s a dimension of coherence that tracks a folkloric imagination alongside trauma and turmoil locked in it.
Australia becomes a possessed, bottomless sort of thing that in its primitive element is too much for humanity. Nothing seems opened there except great expanses of widening narrowness and isolation. Its actors move and suffer in it like strange animals, pathetic and panic filled, harrowed by its hard, unyielding innermost ghosts. In Armand’s world, the place seems the most pure of spirits, one addicted only to other spirits. This inhuman predilection leaves all Armand’s characters spinning around, locked into crazed lives that shatter them, fucks their poetic aspirations, sealing them in disasters of amazing suddenness and pressure – the sort that come when anyone steps too fully into life – which is inevitable if the place has taken away all the spirits. Venus is way away in this novel – everyone is Sycorax here, banished and locked up, thrown by puritans into the bottom of hell – and each leader is Tarquin, a rapist/Macbeth nightmare of impenetrable dullness. The verve of Armand’s fluxy, erotic language brilliantly (as in it shines dazzling) contrasts with the half-crazed grey monstrousness of the time and place in the novel. This is an infernal cauldron, madmen and tempests stewing across the time, from the horrors of war to the horrors of peacetime, a mad place that rips open destinies as if in slow motion, over-ripe and demonic, its autistic spirituality the face staring in horror at the horror it has become. Characters who ought to die maybe don’t but they don’t forgive either. They remain unfailingly torn open by the manner of combinations that Armand skillfully intuits. But even as they fall, there’s the sort of Huck Finn trickster jamming – we saw this earlier – that resists any sense of gloom: the sterility of the world gets charged continually with signs and anticipations of possible freedoms. In this manner, the novel has the fizz and crack of imagination still aflame despite the arbitrary horrors of powers – just as Melville’s prose contrasts with the dullness of Ishmael.
And this link up with the old weird Americana and Australia is no accident and it’s something that rampages through the book, dazzling a thoroughfare from Sydney and the outback right the way through to the shivelit winds, ropes, wrestles, beats and earth-bare creases of old America that also ended up a political crisis of racism, sexism and patriarchal empire politics. The Edenic visions are spliced and skewered by the battalions of the hard woodcut realities of the turning century. But Armand is up to the job of catching the shadowtackle and squandering ooze of the pastoral edenic erotic vernacular despite this. He catches the demotic whap of immiserated poverty and popular revolutionary imaginings raving up new names, egalitarian curiosity, sexualized dreaming and indecorum:
‘White-as-Wayne dug up a billycan from somewhere and they built a fireplace out of rocks, close to the water, with a smoke hole in the canopy. Buzik scooped dam water into the can and a fistful of gum-leaves, to make billy-tea. They sat around waiting for it to boil, smoking tubes of coiled-up bark as if they were cigars. White-as-Wayne gazed at the pin-ups. Christy Canyon, Sharon Kane, Amber Lynn. Big hair and parted lips making the kind of invitation a ten-year-old’s nightmares are made of. Robbo absently flicked dead cicada skins into the fire and watched them flare and crackle and dissolve into white flame. Buzik blew out a smoke ring that rose up through the twilight of the branches. Faint shafts of sunlight filtered down.
“We should bring a girl up ’ere,” Buzik said at last.
“What’d a you want a girl for, it’d just ruin it,” Robbo said, pulling the legs off another husk.
“No girl’d come ’ere anyway,” said Lach.
Steam gusted up from the billycan. White-as-Wayne crawled over with a stick and lifted it off the coals. There was a sharp hiss.’
Armand has merged his language with the experience of a language marginal in the power structures of the Commonwealth but the coarse root of a republican imagination hollowed out by the end by the century’s civilizing ,snaky, satanic hiss. Armand has to maintain this vision of solitary, outlawed, moody life, a humanity that is gloomy and oceanic in its desolation whilst keeping the reader tuned in. His playful energies and humped strutted language helps preserve the reader to the pages, a kind of deep-lit quality of funicular detail, grasping the human dimension with astonishing wakefulness and fight. His descriptions, his psychological understanding both detect the times and the people, their ripeness and wild distinctions as well as find a way of eliciting sympathy and humane respect, avoiding any smug aggressive Calvinism or Napoleonic royalism .
‘Reg dialled-up the volume on the car radio so as not to think about his glorious future any more. A commercial ended and he found himself listening to Acker Bilk. He stabbed at a button blindly and got a different station. “History never repeats,” someone sang over background guitar in a high nasally voice, “I tell myself before I go to sleep…” He made a wry grin, seeing himself exactly like that, stuck in a vicious circle of his own making and trying to bullshit his way out of it. Bullshitting a bullshitter. It was a sure way to fame and glory, peace and happiness, whatever the fuck he’d been pretending all these years he wanted out of life. And what did he want? He didn’t know. To be King Shit maybe.’
This is Armand’s version of the Emily Dickinson who writes:
‘A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.’
Armand writes to the notion of that encroachment and the sacramental power in their minds, these characters, one that insists that their universe is a universe of fire, which is kind of Buddhist, or an electrical Creation without walls. His writing is an aura. What of? Stroke a cat or dog, the back of someone’s head and you’ll feel a pulse of the living connection , a live field of complication, dynamics and coarse superstitious affection. He manages to retain control long enough to give us the sense that his is a natural response, not something abstracted. There’s an occult sense of concealed energies waking up through this, carried on by the exuberant style – last minute shifts and sieges of expression and descriptive detail cut and carved out of honesties and discoveries I guess, a rough sort of magically animated imagination.
The terrible fate of his characters here – and perhaps of all of us readers too – is that they have to dwell on this sold earth rather than remain as hopeful possibilities. They cannot ever be, not for even a slant of a second, just an hypothesis. They live in a world of dreaded ontic closure, and Armand writes (like the post-war poets of Central and Eastern Europe did) with a consciousness of the pervasive power of national and political powers circumscribing freedom – and he’s good at mixing this with the ethnic and gender forces too.
‘Finally, now Fraser’d got the boot, there was talk of a Royal Commission. “Yeah,” Eddie said, “Royal fuckin’ Whitewash.” Reg switched on the radio and got Rex Mossip in mid-stream, then dialled across to a different station — Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs — and tilted his seat back, closing his eyes with the music on low. Politics didn’t mean anything to him anymore. He had enough drama of his own to worry about, a fucked-up marriage, a smartarse kid and a job that had him pegged for a cardiac before he hit forty. He never did get called to the bar, working his way through the NSW Public Service instead, “faster than a rat up a drain.” It didn’t take long to earn a name for himself as a hatchet-man. They sent him to balance the books in every dysfunctional underperforming redundant backwater of government. From Attorney General’s to Education to Consumer Affairs and finally Premier’s, kicking heads at the personal behest of Neville “Wran-the-Man” on a Grade-11 salary. Another ten years, he could sign-off in style with a harbour view.’
His women and non-white characters are depicted in absorbed relations to patriarchy and white racism, Emily Dickenson’s ‘man at noon’ who ‘fumbles at your soul’ and ‘scalps your naked soul.’ The vision Armand presents through his coruscating prose is one where conservative distinctions of nature and culture are forced onto their knees to bleed into the commercial chintz of ‘his new white House the Earth’ – pristine washing powders, mortgages for the middle classes, tv sets, the politics of deadly soppiness and fettering domesticity ‘with a harbour view.’ By the time we’ve done Armand has created a whole lump of sterility and restrictive masculinity and shown the dearth of erotic desire in little rooms in vast spaces. The social forces at play throughout create the chauvinist dominion that his freedom-looking souls endure and die in.
By refusing the self-defining individualism of a puritanical imagination Armand gathers together an extreme performance of impulsive collective intersubjective affection that screams against the agony of these lonely deprivations. Our centuries are insane and ungentle. Armand dwells with the victims of this fault with the great plainness of straight, vernacular language, ‘fleshy tables of the heart’ and all that antinomian riff.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
Buy his book here to keep him biding!
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 22nd, 2015.