This one isn't exactly a Christmas read as I came across it earlier, but it's a thought-provoking read for the holidays.
Australian left-wing author Kalinda Ashton's 2009 debut novel, The Danger Game, came to me indirectly. Recently I downloaded a collection of Aussie short stories on an iPad app from Sleepers, a small press based in Melbourne. Cutting through among hundreds of stories was the bright shard of Ashton's short fiction. Its sheer painful brilliance prompted me to hunt down her novel.
To claim The Danger Game is a "worthy" book seems miserly. But it's true. It is worthy. It depicts suffering with compassion; doesn't shy away from the complexities of poverty, drug use, sex, failure and loss; enacts the tensions of union politics, the under-funding of state schools and the shortcomings of the welfare system. It does all this with glimpses of that same lyrical grace that sang to me in Ashton's short stories and had me wanting more.
What it didn't do was grab me by the scruff of the neck and impel me through the narrative. It interested me; and I persisted; but I can't say I was riveted. Instead I found myself tempted to skip parts and I felt guilty.
Before writing this review, I checked out other reviews. Among those lauding the writing style and worthy politics were ones that found the story boring, including a reader who "wanted to know what happened at the end" and felt deflated because the ending wasn't a surprise. The comments were depressing mostly because I'd felt twinges of the same. So, apparently, did one independent publisher who, according to Ashton, saw an early draft and didn't find it "compelling" enough.
Yet the structure is clearly intentional, as Ashton has stated: "I think what I've tried to do in the book is have a structure almost like an 'anti-thriller' where in fact all the information [the characters] find when they go on this quest is not in fact what is the catharsis or release but the journey back into their lives now, and finding something collective out of the experience." (From an interview with Rebecca Starford in Readings.)
All this got me wondering. About Ashton. About what it means to want to write a value-rich work that is still page-turning, riveting, engaging enough to grab hold of that middle ground of readers who might be indifferent to the politics but who want that "quest" and catharsis; who, like me, want a great read. It got me thinking about the implications of my own desire to write such a book; the ambivalences of such a desire, as Ashton might say.
The questions I come away pondering are these. (Warning: some jargon ahead.) Are the dominant linear narrative forms of Hollywood exemplified, say, in the writers' craft phenomenon Story by Robert McKee, inherently reactionary? By opting for such insistent, pervasive narrative structures is an author inevitably sustaining, supporting and upholding an existing system, one irretrievably implicated in injustices to do with gender, race/ethnicity and class? Is it only by abandoning such structures for more experimental forms that a truly political writing can be achieved?
If it's true that the only way to be truly effective politically is to opt for experimental narrative structure, I can take a stab at why. The argument goes something like this. With the narrative drive to know "What happens next?", readers identify with characters' goals, and enjoy the tension-and-release produced as those goals appear successively attainable and farther away. But such a drive lulls the reader into a type of unconsciousness, where readers demand only the addictive "fix" of a narrative "pull", punctuated by a satisfying cathartic denouement or (in the case of thrillers) surprise ending. By manipulating the reader into becoming such a future-seeker, the writer may make her book a page-turner, but in doing so she potentially takes attention away from the detail, the mundane and numinous, the insights into character, moments that a writer like Ashton evokes and celebrates with ease. Takes away, too, perhaps, the opportunity for thoughtfulness, for engagement, the mental space in which one's preconceptions can be challenged and, possibly, transformed.
On the other hand…
If a lack of narrative drive tempts the reader to put the book down and not pick it up again, what has been achieved?
I'm not saying say that The Danger Game doesn't have narrative drive: it does; but it's subtle, weaves in and out of present and past, spreads itself over three characters' stories told in three different narrative styles (first, second and third person). More importantly, the objects of desire – knowing the truth of what happened in the past and the whereabouts of a lost parent – are never felt to be imperative, let alone vital. They're sought more as a bandaid is looked for when the gash requires stitches or, worse, when the life blood is seeping away. The real desires, love, wholeness, meaning and connection, seem so far beyond the likelihood of being achieved, the characters barely recognise them as needs. Thus when they stumble over them the achievement feels almost accidental.
On reflection, Ashton's narrative may not be especially gripping in terms of story, but it does keep faith with the experience of what it means to be human. Thinking about it, that's a pretty big claim. I think Ashton would be happy.
Note: I found Ashton's book too early to include on my list of books to read for the Australian Women Writers 2012 reading and reviewing challenge. But, while creating the challenge, I've discovered lots of other great books by Australian female authors that I'm looking forward to read. If anyone's looking for some recommendations of prize-winning books by Australian women – in whatever genre – you'll find them on the website. Happy reading!