Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)
A friend of mine, an activist whom I admire hugely, says that when he can’t sleep at night he generally does one of three things: he plays a computer game, reads a novel, or does some work. None of the three is satisfactory, he says, but at least if he does work, then his sleeplessness has been productive. If he spends an hour or two doing either of the others, nothing has changed at the end of that time.
I’m fairly sure that when he speaks so lightly of novels he’s not thinking of The Swan Book or books like it (if there are any). It would be hard to read this book and not feel that something had changed.
As my blogging time is severely limited these days, I give you a heroic attempt at describing the set-up, lifted from an impeccable source – thanks, Will:
Wright’s opening chapter chronicles a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has sent everything mad, where people have been driven from their homelands, forced to seek refuge without knowing a destination, carrying along with them, as they mass upon the oceans seeking a new home, the history of the world’s cultures. That history becomes layered and overlapped, interpenetrating, elements commingled. Wagner jostles the Bible in a radioactive landscape of water and ice, monkeys and swans. Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, leading this exodus from a drowned world, comes to Australia.
There is a marshy swamp, where she settles, in and amidst the rusted hulls of naval vessels cast up to rot in Army-run camps of an intervention, under a sky filled with swans, sometimes. Sometimes, instead, there are helicopters shining searchlights onto the jetsam of Aboriginal people confined there. There, Aunty Bella Donna takes under her wing the girl Oblivia. Oblivion Ethylene, to credit her fully, is a sly spry spink spank sprint of a thing (a characterization I’ve taken not from Wright, but from Finnegans Wake) pulled out from the depths of a eucalyptus tree where she hid after being raped by a pack of petrol sniffers.
That, as Will goes on to say, is just the beginning. There’s the Harbour Master, who is probably Aboriginal and may or may not be a ghost for most of the book, along with his well-dressed monkey. And there’s Warren Finch, a kind of Aboriginal Barack Obama cranked up to eleven, and brolgas, and owls, and rats, and a weird building full of fountains and cats. Oblivia becomes the First Lady of whatnot, she becomes the swan lady, she takes part in a great exodus from a dying city (Sydney perhaps) across a land devastated by climate change.
The book doesn’t lend itself to a quick synopsis. It moves like a dream: the identities of places, people and other living things are unstable. For instance, Oblivia, who has married Warren Finch, sees herself on television accompanying him on state occasions. Since we know, or think we know, that she hasn’t left the house where he dumped her immediately after the wedding, we assume she is seeing an imposter, or perhaps a robotic creation of some kind – it is after all the future. But Oblivia doesn’t share that assumption: as far as she is concerned she must have been there. Are we to read this as Oblivia having a tenuous grasp on reality? Perhaps. Or perhaps we’re the ones who don’t understand how this world works. The narrator doesn’t really care one way or another.
The narrative voice is merciless to the reader’s desire for certainty. In other ways, too, it’s constantly unsettling. As a recovering proofreader, I bristled at a couple of glaring errors: someone etched out a living, graffiti was sprawled on a rusted keel. But by the time I came to a character reigning in an impulse, I realised that in all likelihood the author had staved off any editorial intervention: these occasional errors, along with the frequent grammatical slippages, mangled cliches and apparently random quotes featuring swans, aren’t a bug, but a feature. Likewise the occasional impossibility, such as the tiny Oblivia picking up an adult swan and carrying it some distance tucked under one arm. The reader isn’t so much being told a story as being drawn into a vast dream. And dreams don’t care about proofreading or footnotes or logical consistency.
It’s an almost incredibly rich book. There’s satire (‘closing the gap’ is still a slogan, but its meaning has changed to sinister effect), astute observation (the scene where Oblivia meets a white family is a deeply uncomfortable lesson about cultural sensitivity), erudition (lots of science and history to do with black and white swans), science fiction (a grim dystopian future), and at its heart a devastating non-love story.