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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
To truly get away from civilization is an achievement. It is also traumatic. I once spent three weeks at my grandmother’s cabin in the Caribel mountains of rural Idaho. She had moved there from Half Moon Bay in the 80s after falling for a trucker who fancied himself a cowboy, following him into what he called, “God’s country.” The power went out on numerous occasions. I showered with a bucket. The nearest neighbor was over a mile away. A few months before I arrived, a vehicle carrying four passengers had slipped off the mountain road. I spotted both bear and cougar. My grandmother’s tabby cat had mated with a bobcat giving birth to a single kitten, Blanche, whose meow sounded like a grown man doing a feline impression. I quickly polished off all the books I had brought with me unaware that there was no nearby library. The only literature my grandmother owned were large-print Spanish editions of the Bible. That, and stacks of magazines: Time, National Geographic, and Readers Digest purchased impulsively from the general store down the mountain. It was in a back-issue of Time that I read a profile about the Aborigine writer Alexis Wright and her novel Carpentaria.
The profile described Carpentaria—a novel about the fate of an Aborigine family living in a middle of nowhere town on the Northern Australian coast— as a mix of Proustian detail, postmodernist wit, and Aboriginal mythology. Wright had shopped Carpentaria around to numerous publishers receiving rejection after rejection. When a small, independent publisher took it on, Carpentaria suddenly became a sensation in Australia. Wright, a member of the Waanyi Aborigines, was catapulted into literary stardom. The profile ended on a cliffhanger—she had yet to find an American publisher. The Time issue was already a couple of years old when I read it. Though I had never heard of Carpentaria, I tried the closest bookstore, eighty miles away. “Carpentaria? You mean The Carpenters? This isn’t a record store.” I hung up the rotary phone, defeated.
Carpentaria had been acquired, I later learned, by Simon and Schuster imprint Atria Books right around the time I read the profile. But when Atria published it here in the U.S., something odd happened—the book disappeared. No reviews. No interviews. No bookstore carried it. Nothing. It was as if Carpentaria had entered the Bermuda Triangle of American publishing. I could practically hear the gothic jingle of Unsolved Mysteries queuing up. I finally ordered Carpentaria from Amazon; what came in the mail was a 500+ page doorstop with this opening:
A nation chants, but we know your story already. The bells peal everywhere. Church bells calling the faithful to the tabernacle where the gates of heaven will open, but not for the wicked. Calling little black girls from a distant community where the white dove bearing an olive branch never lands. Little girls who come back home after church on Sunday, who look around themselves at the human fallout and announce matter-of-factly, Armageddon begins here.
Carpentaria doesn’t begin with Armageddon. It opens with a serpent God creating the Gulf of Carpentaria and ends with a hurricane creating an island of floating trash. The amount of characters in it could fill a small town. And there is a town, Desperence, a place where both Aborigine and White live side by side in poverty. Normal Phantom is Carpentaria’s main, if unwilling, protagonist. He is the keeper of the stories of his people, a neglectful father and husband, a wiseman, a wiseass, a man who embalms fish with horsehair and paints them in colors as they appear in his dreams. If he could spend his whole life fishing, he would. Normal reminds me of the unfortunate character in that Twilight Zone episode who wants everyone to go away so that he can read his books. You keep waiting for him to crack his glasses.
What will eventually fill the pages of Carpentaria is the fate of Desperance itself. Like Roberto Bolaño’s Santa Teresa, Desperance is the great stage on which the story is played. Characters include an amnesiac sailor, a landfill queen, an activist-cum-revolutionary, a mafia don, sea nymphs, a parrot who has met the pope, and a shaman who guides his Aborigine brothers and sisters, in a long snake-like Bob Marley-blaring car caravan, to the sacred dream sites of their ancestors.
“Dream” is a loaded concept here. Wright interweaves the mythos of Dreamtime—the Aboriginal creation myths—with their laws regulated by Dreaming. I’m not sure how it entirely works, and forgive me if I am way off the mark, but from what I’ve researched, dreams for the Aborigines take on more than a sacred status, they don the identity of intellectual property. One real case had a dream tribune settle a dispute over the misuse of someone’s dream. The Waanyi, in other words, are serious dreamers—the characters in Carpentaria coexist with their dreams as they do with their waking reality. Norman yells at the sea, and the sea yells back at him. A bartender falls in love with a wooden mermaid.
This stuff may go over your head (it certainly went over mine), but that’s the point. Wright is looking at the Western world from the eyes of the Waanyi. This may be the great 21st century indigenous novel about 21st century indigenous people—there are no recollections of past glory here, no nostalgia for ways and customs that no longer exist. Wright’s prose is inflected with the flotsam and jetsam of Western culture: Dreamtime at one end of the spectrum, and Nintendo at the other. In one scene, a murder causes many of the residents of Desperance to revive their long dead beliefs in the supernatural: “Half the town claimed, on the gospel truth, they owned extraordinary gifts of perception allowing them to see ghosts, as though it was like the purchase of a new car.”
When I finished Carpentaria, I found myself researching aspects of the book, in particular Aboriginal concepts of Dreaming, and then, more pragmatically, the Gulf of Carpentaria that scoops out Northern Queensland. I looked at a map and found a town called Normanton (coincidence?) just off the coast, almost exactly where I imagined I’d find Desperance. Normanton boasts a population of roughly 3,000, over half of which is Waanyi. It is also farther from the Queensland capital of Brisbane than Barrow is from the Alaskan capital city, Juneau. There is no highway that will get you there; you have to travel hours on a county road. Finding Normanton brought me back, full circle somehow, to my grandmother’s cabin and the Caribel mountains—a region that is least likely to spawn a great writer. At least I wouldn’t expect it.
Michael Barron is an associate editor at New Directions. He lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.