This is probably the last Tim Winton novel I’ll ever read.
When I was wandering around India, I ran into Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram. He made the very generous offer of showing me around Mumbai for a couple of days and was amenable to reading some of my first novel. He looked over the chapter and said, ‘Nobody knows where these places are.” When I questioned him on it, he said that “Australians are funny people. They won’t read about their own country, but they will read about Australians inEurope. Or somewhere like that. You knowAmsterdam; why don’t you set a novel there?”
I thought this was pretty superficial at the time. Then, I read in the back pages of The Riders:
“If you’re looking for a book that bolts you to your seat, this is it. You’ll see the glittering Greek islands, the mystic Irish mountains, the great Australian desert, the prolific Indian Ocean. You’ll see the lurid red-light district of Amsterdam and the destitution and arrogance of Paris. You’ll laugh and sing with the Irish and cry with the rustic Aussie.”
My recent adventures in trying to get published basically amount to the discovery that most people buying modern Australian fiction are fucked. They read to have their egos flattered and their prejudices confirmed. The Riders has confirmed this suspicion. (I also read Breathe, which I would describe as the modern Australian wimp’s manifesto. The idea that Christos Tsiolkas missed out on the Miles Franklin for The Slap and the panel awarded that simpering fat wimp another one for his turgid biscuit of smegma makes me sick.)
Credit where it’s due, though; he can really fucking write. I absolutely loved Dirt Music and ploughed through it at crazy speed, until crashing into the utterly appalling ending. Dirt Music is lit with some absolutely incandescent prose, specifically, as I remember (and this is going back about ten years) when he writes about one of his characters diving for something, maybe abalone, under the sea. His description of being underwater is absolutely breathtaking. While some of the prose in The Riders is daggy, the last part of Scully’s Christmas in Paris, when he and his daughter wander into mass at night, is awesome. Interestingly, the Paris phase of the story is all about what cunts the Parisians are. Again, acceptable prejudice. I loved Paris and had little to no problem – at all – with the French. I interviewed a man recently who told me about being taken by his father to box on an aboriginal reservation as a child. He told me that was fine, until he saw the other aborigine kids at the bus stop to go to school on Monday morning and the fighting was on again! In our current cultural climate, that’s a story you can’t tell.
People had said to me that, like a number of his other books, The Riders doesn’t have an ending. I’d disagree with that; the ending was the most satisfactory part of the novel for me. It did give the thing a kind of returning to its origin quality, and I was convinced by it. There was also something ‘heartwarming’, if you like, about the union between father and daughter, which is what Scully uses to sustain himself through what is a terrible ordeal.
The thing Winton’s novels do, like a dog returning to its vomit, is return to the decent, struggling protagonist and his definitive, despicable act. It’s a bit like hitting bottom, as Tyler Durden describes in Fight Club. The stories seem to circle around a terrible, unspeakable transgression on the part of the protagonist, who is ostensibly a ‘good’ person. This is something else about his writing which I admire; it’s very tough to make audiences look into their heart of darkness, and he builds it in as the hub of his story.
Reading The Riders was an interesting experience. For me, the (simplistic) distinction between art and propaganda is that art speaks of unique instances, while propaganda speaks in generalisations. When doing my arts degree, I found that the lecturers and tutors tended to read everything as propaganda, especially if they didn’t like it, or it didn’t gel with their opinions. If I were to do the same in relation to The Riders, I would say that it is a portrait of the Aussie male as a good-hearted simpleton dealing with women who exceed him in their capacities. Scully, the protagonist, has been suddenly deserted by his wife, who has left him in sole care of their daughter, Billie. She was restless and frustrated, obviously trapped and in need of escape. The betrayal of her husband and daughter is clearly painted as a measure of her desperation, absolving her of any blame or judgement. I think the modern woman who buys books enjoys these sorts of portraits; Scully is like a voodoo doll, endlessly absorbing spiky things until his final descent into drunken brawling in the red light district of Amsterdam. If anything, I think that Winton’s success is largely built on his ability to mine the prejudices of his audience in this current cultural climate.
Fuck off back to Cloustreet, Winton. You’re a wimp.