Monday, October 21, 2013

Tim Winton's new novel Eyrie

Most Australians love Tim Winton. A minority finds him ordinary. I'm in the latter camp. (Geordie Williamson in The Australian is in the former. His fawning review is typical).

As a novel, Eyrie, I'll be honest, is pretty much a disaster. Sure there's the sparkling prose - it  leaps off every page with extraordinary vitality. In fact Winton's inventive similes have become such a stylistic tic that you can sense the effort gone into creating them. But the plot is too simple and the main characters, while superbly drawn, far too irritating. 
The reader gets no pleasure out of this. It all grinds on and on leading, basically, nowhere. 

Winton captures the character of an older mainstream Australia, particularly the working class and the underprivileged with all his formidable linguistic dexterity. He's as blokey as they come and his register is an Australian patois that most of us haven't heard for decades if at all: 'her world had been flying like shit off a shovel'; 'face like a spanked arse'; 'He felt as useful as a hip pocket on a singlet'; 'Flayed like a Filipino penitent'.

Many of his references are dated too: Roy Rene, Flip Wilson; Farah Fawcett; Julie Christie; Brigitte Bardot; '4x4's.

The principle character is Tom Keely, a disgraced former environmental activist and now a recently divorced, pill-popping drunk, who may or may not have had a nervous breakdown. He's descended low and making no effort to get a grip. His parents, do-gooders and esteemed in their community, cast a long authoritative shadow over their progeny. 

But Keely seems pretty normal otherwise. As he walks around his local streets in Fremantle his antipathy to the usual inner suburban suspects - the 'dog folks', the 'yummy-mummies', the 'Facebook  hipsters and metrosexuals' - all deliciously spice up the narrative and provide a breezy social critique which is the closest Winton comes to injecting any larger meaning into his tale.

Two other main characters force their way into his depressing world - Kai, a magnetic but troubled and mysterious six year old, and his crazy nan Gemma.

Gemma is your typical lowlife leech. Vulgar, in-your-face, self-obsessed, resentful of everyone and everything, and incredibly annoying. It's a testament to Winton's skill at characterisation that she is so annoying. 

Some reviewers have called this novel an anti-mining treatise, as if mining defined all modern societies. It's not even attempting that. Keely was burnt by his struggles for the environment, but Winton indulges in no strong polemic here. He doesn't celebrate or condemn. 
It's a story of a former middle-class idealist thrust into the unlovely brutal world of the underclass and, surprise surprise, bumbling his way to failure. 

That's why in the end the book never never really takes off. It never ignites. The ending, more a fizzle, typifies that.

Disappointing. Winton's gifts should be put to better use.

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