Saturday, February 14, 2015

Barracuda


I never bothered reading The Slap but I certainly did watch the ABC series. The interrogation of class, race, and Australian identity was compelling in the televisual format. Though the series left me little desire to try and read the original novel. Fastforward a bit, and my job at a bookstore allowed me acquire an advanced reading copy of Tsiolkas's newest novel, Barracuda. 

Barracuda, unlike the animal itself, is a messy beast, splashing and thrashing through the form of the novel leaving bits and pieces strewn about. Like a couple of other novels I've started and left behind, Barracuda is an example of the form of the novel in its last gasps, its death knell, its cry for mercy from terrible writers who have nothing new to add other than poorly realized characters and situations.

However, despite recognizing that Barracuda is an example of the terrible decay of the "novel," I still kind of liked it. It's a heavyhanded novel that wants so badly for the reader to get it, to be on the same program. I like it despite the heavy hand with which Tsolkas labours. It's an earnest novel, as if Tsiolkas thinks he is the first to point out the racism, the classism, the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie in Australia. As if with every scene he composed, Tsolkas chuckled to himself, "Fuck, wait until they get a load of this! It'll blow their stuffy prissy minds!" But it is because of his earnest desire to shock and offend the middle class that I admire Barracuda. The word "cunt" is repeated almost on every page, while Danny, the protagonist spits, fights, swears, and shouts and pretty much every single character.

There's a pointless detour near the end of the novel in which Danny as an adult accompanies his mother to visit her dying Jehovah's Witness mother. After "rebelling" against the family, Danny's mother was cast out, exiled and excommunicated for giving up the faith, for turning away from God. The sequence has two goals for the overall narrative: to introduce Danny to the idea that his redemption comes in the form of being an aide to cognitively impaired victims of head trauma; to add some more social observation that orthodoxy -- whether of religious or social -- is intrinsically damaging and prevents a Forster-style connection.

Both of these points had already been made, believe it or not. Barracuda for almost no narrative or thematic purpose, is nonlinear. The structure follows two discrete nonlinear paths: jumping around in the past while also jumping around in the present. The novel is of two halves -- with both past and present being juxtaposed throughout. The end of the first part reveals what it is that sent Danny to prison, something foreshadowed painfully in both past and present sequences.

Thus, we already knew that Danny finds redemption in the role of aide for those left with cognitive disabilities. It's presented to the reader fairly upfront. We also already knew that concepts of orthodoxy limit the growth of individuals; it's a point made ad nauseum. So why then, does the novel spend 40 or so pages in this physical (they roadtrip to Adelaide) and figurative detour?

To answer this question, I'm reminded of Michael Hofmann's scathing hatchet job of Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North . Though I haven't read Flanagan's Booker Prize winning novel (and might not), I recognize Hofmann's chief complaint. The novel, as a form, is boring. I'm going to quote Hofmann at length, so bear with me:
It used to be that a novel would put you among people, tell you a story or stories, give you some sense of what it might be like to see a different cut-out and perspective of the world: as a schoolteacher, an adulteress, the wife of a member of Parliament, an officer, a cockroach. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the novel in an advanced and showy state of dissolution. It is as though the contemporary novel – like film (4-D, coming soon to a cinema near you), like theatre, like so much else – is in competition with itself, falling over itself to offer you more interiority, more action, more understanding, more vision. But the form, the vessel, is an exploded form; it is basically rubble, fragmentary junk, debris. It’s not even leaky anymore; it can hold nothing.
Hofmann's salient point here, which applies easily to Tsiolkas's "novel" is that it pretends to provide interiority, pitched to the maximum. Novels, especially "literary" novels that aspire to prizes, to important meaning, are essentially carefully curated events with each moment ruthlessly calculated for specific affect. Hofmann is astute to compare the Literary Novel to the blockbuster film. Both are endlessly and exhaustively calculated, shorn of authenticity or organic affect.

Jonathan McCalmont, a critic I greatly respect, writes of the most recent Transformers blockbuster that:
art house films like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life work with the process by presenting the audience with evocative yet ambiguous imagery that encourages the audience to develop their own creative and interpretative powers. Conversely, Hollywood blockbusters are less interested in encouraging audiences to make up their own minds than they are in producing a carefully curated experience in which the audience is told what to think, what to feel and when to feel it. In this type of oppressive creator-consumer relationship, breathing room is the last thing you want as the more audiences are allowed to think for themselves, the harder it becomes to ensure that audiences are having the type of cinematic experience that can be sold to advertisers and government bodies.
Heaven forbid the audience manages to think about the cultural object in their hands. Here, though, I must quibble with McCalmont's phrasing. He refers to this dialectic as a "creator-consumer relationship." The idea that any "creation" is involved in these projects is laughable. The Individual Artist toiling away to produce the Great Novel is a concept of the past. Think of the countless gates the manuscript must past before reaching publication: writer, editor, agent, publisher, editor again, marketing, design, promotion, film rights, television rights. Obviously, not all of these gates change the object itself, but change the relation between object and consumer. The object, in this case, Tsiolkas's Barracuda crosses the Rubicon into our hands, carefully curated by writer, editor, publisher, etc etc etc. It's the literary equivalent to middle brow schlock as The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. These aren't aesthetic objects to be enjoyed, interpreted, loved, hated, considered, or remembered. No, they are consumer products to be consumed and then discarded. The moment the object relents and allows you to think for yourself, you'll notice the "exploded form," the debris caused, paradoxically, by the careful smoothing over of edges to maximize the interiority. Here, we do not have Creators, but Producers.

What aura does Barracuda and its ilk have? What aura could the Novel possibly have after its infinite reproduction by mechanical means? Obviously, I'm mobilizing Walter Benjamin here to speak not only of products like Barracuda but of the infinite reproduction of the form of the novel. Like Hofmann writes, the form of the novel is "basically rubble, fragmentary junk" that has lost its authenticity through the constant repetition of the structure, the characters, the promise of interiority, the "play" with time. All of these elements that Barracuda uses are boring and have been repeated endlessly. Benjamin writes:
One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.
The novel is no longer novel. We have been provided a plurality, or better yet, an archive of curated effects for so long, we haven't realized it's the same thing over and over. The affect that Literary Novels traffics in is the same, reproduced faithfully but without feeling. Yes, the Literary Novel peddles feeling without feeling and we stand amidst the rubble, the debris, and think, "well that's a nice story" that made us feel "good" or feel "bad."

We've confused the piles of rubble that constitute the novel with Great Art because it has been curated so carefully as to imitate Great Art. It's the substitution of novel form and thought (novel as in new) for the Literary Novel, a tired repetition without a difference, an exhaustive archive of engineered affect.


I'm reminded of Jacques Derrida's theories on the archive that he formulated in, fittingly enough, Archive Fever. He writes that the archive, as an idea, contains, holds, and preserves: "[t]he concept of the archive shelters in itself, of course, this memory of the name arkhe. But it also shelters itself from this memory which it shelters: which comes down to saying also that it forgets it." In other words, the archive is transparent (by virtue of its existence) and concealed (by virtue of which it contains). The archive, due to its physical impression, has a radical finitude. Its very physicality means it is not eternal. The archive then has a fever to maintain its existence. Derrida writes, "It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement." The archive is conservative, but transparently so.

Likewise, the Literary Novel, despite its pretensions to innovations in form (the nonlinearity in Barracuda is far from innovative), is compulsively focused on the nostalgic return to its origin. The novel, as many have pointed out over the years, hasn't really changed in a century. A small handful of writers, drops in an infinite ocean of novelists, have tried to wrestle with the form, to make something new of the debris, the rubble. Yet, continually, the Novel returns to the same thing, to the same program of affect, the same totalitarian producer-consumer relationship that organizes the interiority for ease of access.

Barracuda is like other novels I've read (or abandoned, such as Andrew O'Hagen's The Illuminations, which seems so boring and safe); there's nothing novel about this. From its movement back and forth through space to its pretensions at social relevance, Barracuda has all the trappings of the Literary Novel. It lies broken among countless other novels. Its plot, an allegory for the sudden success that Tsiolkas himself found after the publication of The Slap, is heavier than lead. It's barely even worth mentioning the plot; as with other Literary Novels, it's about the feelings of accomplishment from the reader, rather than the affective or narrative journey undertaken by the object. We're supposed to feel better about ourselves that we read a Literary Novel that won a Great Prize. Reading Prizewinners keeps us relevant, helps us stay afloat in an era of near infinite waves of reproduction of novels. How to stay topical? Read a Prizewinner that talks about serious subjects. It doesn't do anything with those subjects; it merely substitutes interiority and meaning for the illusion of it, all for the puerile gratification of the reader. When Barracuda "tackles" race or class, it does so in the most obvious way possible, so that its plot or thematic points are pitched at a register high enough that children could even grasp that "racism is bad!"

Reading Literary Novels is aspirational. We struggle through these Great Big Novels about Big Subjects in order to improve ourselves, in order to maintain our loosening grip on relevancy. Of course, I run the risk of appearing to be an elitist pompous ass with this line of reasoning, and perhaps I am. Throughout this review, I've made sure to include myself, using the "we" pronoun, to make sure that I'm guilty of the same aspirational nonsense as others. I'm a hypocrite; I read Literary Novels for the same reasons others do. The motive is similar to going to see Transformers: Age of Extinction. I want to experience something, anything. A Literary Novel such as Barracuda provides escapism, tourism, and a sense of accomplishment. Escapism, I've always maintained, has its use. The problem is when every cultural object becomes escapist, a danger that Literary Novels present, considering their infantilizing authoritarian stance on affect: "feel this when you are told to feel."

Where is the ambiguity? Not the purported moral ambiguity that Romances like Game of Thrones haphazardly present, but an aesthetic ambiguity, where the cultural object dares you to feel something beyond the pat emotions of "good" or "bad." Barracuda has no aesthetic ambiguity; it's not a novel to love or hate. It's imminently disposable -- onto the next one! I'd rather hate a novel than feel ambivalent. I read Barracuda in a timely fashion (less than 24 hours), so I suppose that's some sort of compliment? That it's readable? The prose is accessible enough -- though ugly and blunt. Is this the most I can say about the experience I had with this novel, this project that tons of people worked on? How disappointing.

"Barracuda is a readable novel that people read to feel simple things and to think simple things. It is successful in that endeavour." 
That's the blurb you should put on this and countless other novels. It's the most I can say about the emotional journey I had with Barracuda.

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