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Fiction reviews


Bernard Cohen - Tourism

21 June 1992

by Bernard Cohen

published in The Age

During my most recent breakdown I spent a little time in placid, bucolic Singleton. I wandered by the river, chatted in parks with the apple-cheeked locals, and breathed the restorative country air. It was a happy, if involuntary, respite from the highways of life and the Country Roads Board, and when my head was re-assembled - it had been nearly cracked by a leaking radiator hose - I paid the mechanics and drove on.

Imagine my shock, on opening this book - which purports to have something to say about 151 alphabetically listed Australian towns - to see Singleton described thus:

They bake and stew and roast and fry and boil and broil and grill and saute and fricasse and steam. From first light till well after dark, Singleton's good folk make the most appalling smells. And then they eat the stuff... And then they sit on their verandahs with their bellies hanging over their trousers and burp appreciatively. I've never seen anything like it.

Clearly, when the author of this volume speaks of the town's furious stenches, he speaks not of the Singleton we know and love (1976 B Grade Premiers, twice a Tidy Towns runner-up) but of a Singleton of the mind.

So the pieces in this volume - which seems to have been inspired, to put it kindly, by Calvino's Invisible Cities - bear no resemblance, real or metaphorical, to the towns they nominally describe. The first problem they raise, therefore, is: Why name them "Singleton", "Adelaide", "Bowral", etcetera?

Typically, the pieces tell of each town's physical qualities - its parks, river, weather, et al - in a bland recitative fashion; sometimes wild hyperbole is added (Singleton's stenches, Turkey Creek's 120,000 species of biting insect); and sprinkled therein we will invariably get a sentence or so of something more abstract. "Everywhere there are inaccessible corners." "EmÍbrace your family. Know the size of your audience. Communicate effectively. Alter the size of your eyes." Or: "To fail to listen is to have passed away." What the writer is trying to say in these "deep" bits seems always just beyond the reader's comprehension.

Cumulatively, all this makes reading Tourism about as exciting as queueing for fish in the Russian snow. To make matters worse, some ideological education is administered. "Invalid poetics" and "conciseness of forms" are dragged in, as are the ever-dependable signifiers - which seem to be to minds of the nineties what hula-hoops were to those of the fifties.

If sub-text tends to manifest in inverse proportion to literary ability, so, too, do ill-considered experiments. Purportedly a novel, Tourism actually contains 151 discrete pieces of writing. Much of what is comprehensible in each piece does not relate to the rest of that piece, even that which is comprehensible.

No doubt this is meant to be the point, or non-point. (Or not-point or unpoint: I'm a little fuzzy on the lexicon of meaninglessness.) For the book seems to be telling us that meaning can never be properly conveyed or agreed upon; cannot remain the same from one second, or geographical place, to the next; can never be separated from its author, or recipient; or even, perhaps, does not exist. The collection of post-structuralist theories behind Cohen's work have, as usual, not proven conducive to readability (in the common garden, not the deconstructivist, sense of the word). Tourism is awash with the porcelain phírases and facile gamesmanship of the modern academy.

One can, mercifully, see glimmers of talent. Some  of Cohen's phrases are distinctly well-turned. And the references - heavy-handed though they are - to semiotics, semantics and (unless I'm very much mistaken) quantum physics, mean his writing embraces some of the basic notions of our time. The embrace, however, is a compromising one. There is too little of him amid the theory.

The uncertainty as to whether light is a particle or a wave never prevented a theatre usherette from using her torch. Neither should "the death of the author", and the exceedingly poor health of meaning - in the minds of today's theorists at least - prevent a novelist from writing a novel. They have here.

Bernard Cohen is refusing to leave the house until it is proven that the front door exists. By the time this is achieved the crowd on the footpath could be rather thin.

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