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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, October 13th, 2005


 

The Turning: New Stories

by Tim Winton

An Australian Writer You Should Be Reading

A review by Chloe Schama

Tim Winton's career comprises a veritable laundry list of literary accomplishments. He wrote his first novel, An Open Swimmer, when he was only 19 and has continued to write prolifically since. Twice nominated for the Booker Prize, in 1995 for The Riders and again in 2002 for Dirt Music, he has transcended his boy-genius label, gaining a reputation, at least in Australia, as one of the country's most compelling contemporary writers. In a poll conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Winton's novel Cloudstreet was named a "favorite read," trailing behind only four other books: The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird (in that order). Winton's distance from the literary scene -- he lives far from the country's capital on the western coast of Australia -- and his reluctance to step into the literary limelight seem to convey an appealing humility not always associated with literary wunderkinds, even in their more mature years.

Despite his accolades, Winton remains largely unknown to most American readers. Of course, considerable obstacles impede any writer seeking to obtain a worldwide reputation. But given Winton's success, in a country that speaks the same language no less, his relative obscurity is still surprising. Does his use of a vernacular make his Australian a foreign language? "I tried the damper with the butter he brought in from the kero fridge and it was good," he writes in his most recent work. Or does the material, also distinctly Australian, alienate American readers? One story in his newest collection is told from the perspective of a washed-up football (i.e., soccer) star. In another he traces the anxiety of boy who confronts an Aboriginal convict. But if Winton's work is as great as his fans proclaim, these hiccups in communication and the foreignness of his subject matter should not prevent his international acclaim. Despite the cultural specificity, Winton's skill is not lost in translation, as his new collection of short stories, The Turning, demonstrates.

Winton's writing gives voice to downtrodden individuals -- the jaded policemen, battered wives, alcoholic fishermen, and frustrated teenagers who populate the town of Angelus, the last whaling town in Australia and familiar turf for Winton, as he set his 1986 novel, Shallows, here as well. If their vocabulary, and in some cases, their professions, are distinctly Australian, these are recognizable types, rendered sympathetic by Winton's writing. Elizabeth Ward has written in the past that Winton "gets you inside the very skin of ... Australians the way Joyce made you feel like a turn-of-the-century Dubliner," and these stories further establish the authentic feel of Winton's narrative voice.

Though Winton begins The Turning with a quotation from Eliot, the Joycean comparison is apt here as well. As in Dubliners, The Turning's stories (15 in Joyce's case, 17 in Winton's) are linked and set in a specific locale. Characters reappear in multiple stories at various stages of life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Thematically, as well as structurally, similarities between the two works exist; truth, rather than beauty, seems the ultimate aesthetic objective. Just as Joyce held, in his own words, a "nicely polished looking-glass" to his country, Winton's unadorned stories seem designed to reflect the realities of his society.

The realist imperative does not imply narcissism in either case; the looking-glass serves to magnify, not beautify the gritty reality of both societies. Joyce maintained that life was "exceptionally violent; painful and violent" and that the writer should not withdraw from this harsh reality. The random acts of violence that occur relentlessly in The Turning imply that Winton subscribes to a similar narrative ideology. In "Long, Clear View" a school is set on fire and a girl is found dead in the bathroom. The suspected arsonist, also a student, hangs himself. And this is only the beginning: "Two kids drown. There's a rollover on the coast road. A girl has her stomach pumped." Violence occurs on a closer, more personal level as well. In "Sand" a boy tempts his younger brother into a hole, then proceeds nearly to suffocate him by stomping on the surrounding sand.

Joyce blames the circumlocutions used to describe his society, as much as the society itself, for its violent reality. Rhetorical indirection created, as Joyce phrased it, a "hemiplegia of the will." Determined to represent society without euphemism, Joyce couldn't eliminate these linguistic obstacles, but he constructed his stories so that the very articulation of a cliché emphasized its inadequacy and vapidity. In Joyce's "Eveline," for example, a girl fantasizes: "[I]n her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married -- she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then." Eveline's unspecific faith that "it would not be like that" in her future, becomes an ominous harbinger for her fate; her fatigued phrases forebode additional wearying times.

Winton is not explicit in his narrative intent, but like Joyce, he portrays a world in which progress is impeded by the very language the characters use. A woman who spends her life scrubbing other people's floors justifies her occupation to her resentful son: "Love, we grin and bear it." Even the characters who plan their escape are trapped within their limited speech. In "Big World" a high-school graduate who has recently failed his college entrance exams dreams of ditching Angelus and heading north with his best friend, Biggie, to the "wide open spaces" along "trails to adventures." In the rapidly accelerated conclusion, these trails of adventure lead to an early death for Biggie and a long life of bourgeois mediocrity for the narrator.

This shift in tone from romantic fantasy to ruthless reality provides an example of the type of epiphany that punctuates Winton's stories. An epiphany, according to Joyce, could take place "in the vulgarity of speech or gesture or in a memorable phrase"; the epiphany reveals, to the reader, if not to the character, the insubstantiality of a character's own language. Using the limiting linguistic elements -- euphemism, cliché, etc. -- he disdained, Joyce created an aesthetically complex work. By forcing an interrogation of the very language they employ, the epiphanies build subtly and devastatingly.

Winton wields epiphany less deftly. For most of "Long, Clear View," the adolescent narrator is only partly enlightened as to the adult world. The things he overhears "solve nothing; they're just nasty bits of information [he] could have done without." Rather than elucidate the mysterious violence taking place around him, these scraps of information "puddle and pool" in his head, further increasing his confusion. "Everything you know and all the things you half know hang on you like the pressures of sleep." In the final pages of the story, however, the narrator obtains "a long, clear view," a crystallized, if general, sense of purpose: "Responsibility is on you now," he informs himself, "implacable as gravity." At the end of "Boner McPharlin's Moll," the narrator realizes that her almost life-long relationship with Boner does not even amount to friendship: "All I knew was that I hadn't been Boner's friend at all. Hadn't been for years. A friend paid attention, showed a modicum of curiosity, made a bit of effort. ... I was beginning to see." Such epiphanies complicate the character's worldview, but they do not complicate Winton's prose.

Perhaps the most egregiously explicit epiphany occurs in the title story, "The Turning." Here, Raelene, constantly subjected to the beatings of her husband, begins a friendship with a sophisticated and happily married woman. After discovering that this woman and her husband are born-again Christians, her wariness fades to curiosity. "What's it like?" Raelene asks, "the moment you suddenly got it, when it clicked." Her friend answers: "'Like a hot knife going into me,' murmured Sherry sounding all foggy, a woman with her pillow voice on. 'Like ... like I was butter and here was this knife opening me up.'" At the conclusion of this story, Raelene experiences a similar-sounding transcendence while her husband beats and rapes her. "The moment Max speared into her and tore open her insides she was full of hot and certain feeling. She was free. She had already outlived him." Winton slams together the stereotypical elements of epiphany -- religious revelation, sexual ecstasy -- with startling violence and little consequence.

Despite the directness of Winton's epiphanies, his stories are not symptomatic of the dubious "mass production of insight" that one critic has claimed is endemic to contemporary short-story writing. The epiphanies are not therapeutic; they do not ameliorate the grim lives of the characters that experience them. Instead they provide disturbing and compelling insight into an un-romanticized, un-euphemized Australian reality. This is not a reality that should alienate American readers. Winton's well-crafted writing, with its stripped-down honesty and gutsy verve, deserves wider appreciation. (There are very few contemporary writers, after all, who warrant comparison to Joyce.) The Turning is filled with pivotal moments; hopefully the collection will prompt such a moment in Winton's international career.


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