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Fiction reviews


Amanda Lohrey - The Reading Group

28 August 1988

The Reading Group
Amanda Lohrey

Published in The Age

Amanda Lohrey's new novel centres on eight people who were in their younger days members of the Party, capital P - presumably the Labor Party - and who thereafter, in the name of personal growth, formed a reading group. However the reading group too has dissolved before this novel begins, and so we follow the lives of eight individuals who have in the main drifted away from one another.

Retaining shreds of their old idealism, one works in a Christian coffee lounge, another as a Ministerial assistant, another as a liberal lawyer. Others become, variously, a roue, a teacher and a mother. The one who works in the coffee lounge takes an oafish criminal under his wing. The Ministerial assistant spends his evenings writing up minutes and so on. The mother mothers, the rake goes through women like hot suppers - or at least wants to - and the lawyer goes to court a fair bit. I'm afraid that most devastating of critical questions - so what? - arises pretty early in this narrative. And there's not much holding these many little dramas together. Maybe all the fragmentation is intended. But the fragments aren't nearly strong enough to make the grade as short stories. And collectively they lack novel-like cohesion.

Picador's blurb-writer tells us this book is set in the future. This hardly seems the case. There's no mention of future technology, and the only difference between its time-frame and ours is in the political arrangements. The national Government, for example, seems to be sliding toward fascist dictatorship. And a Committee for Public Safety is beginning to have an unhealthy influence on things. The Committee is a kind of HR Nichols Society that people take seriously.

I read part of an earlier draft of The Reading Group in Scripsi in 1985. But the book, with its atmosphere of political threat and disillusionment, seems to have been conceived earlier, under the shadow of that most modest of tyrants, Malcolm Fraser. This is reinforced when we're introduced to the then coming man - the "new leader of the federal party":

His offhand demogoguery...and his machismo romance with the media. O, the vividness of the man... Lunging eyebrows, lopsided grin, the eagle swooping on his prey...

Much later we see the new Leader - now identified as a former union official - in his leafy house in the eastern suburbs, with court and pool. His body is tanned and nuggety, his legs slightly bowed - and he can chuckle and frown at the same time. Definitely sounds like someone we know, doesn't it?

So why the rather weak attempts to disguise political identities? The same thing happens with our natural landmarks, and our cities. (The city of the book, for example, has at different times a harbour and a bay.) Lastly, why impose an Orwellian future on this country at all? Even in Australian democracy's darkest hours - the hours of Billy Hughes, or Stanley Bruce or, more latterly, John Kerr - such an outcome has never been that likely. Australians are perennially more liable to distract and amuse themselves to perdition than to be frogmarched.

As far as the book's structure is concerned: the technique of jumping from one character to another might have worked with two characters, or even three - but not eight. You lose track - which means that you lose interest. It's basically a variation on the discontinuous narrative form - surely the most meaningless literary fashion to come our way in some years.

Now, it must be said that Amanda Lohrey is one of the handful of Australian authors who can write convincingly about sex. She refrains from drawing the metaphorical curtains at crucial moments, and none of her characters is prone to ponderous mid-coital realisations - which is a nice change. Sex is sex, as she well realises, and her descriptions of it have a tremendous and quite unaffected verisimilitude. Perhaps because of this, the most memorable and well-drawn character is the male philanderer.

But unfortunately the sex is rarely tied into the novel's central thread, which - as I've implied - is its extremely muddled politics. The Australia of the novel is being run by a Council of Deputies - yet our original Constitution seems to be in force. It doesn't quite make sense. The book's actual polemic reminded me of rather earnest conversations conducted through port-stained beards in Carlton pubs, circa 1972. The only exceptions were some recurring italicised passages. They somehow kept reminding me of the sayings of Gramsci, in their dry and understated grasp of political psychology. It was almost a shock, therefore, to see one eventually credited to Gramsci, and to find his Prison Notebooks acknowledged at the end.

John Fowles dropped Gramsci quotes throughout Daniel Martin - and it didn't really work for him either - although at least he had some sort of dramatic momentum to cradle them in. Overall, it's best for the novelist to leave such things alone, and light her own fires.

The Reading Group, too, contains lots of would-be profundities, many of which are just plain wrong. I can hardly agree, for example, that "men endlessly relive the past" - or that "older people always seem cheered by disaster". These aside, there are enough non sequiturs to keep an alert editor busy on a verbal pogrom. The prose contains no outright horrors, but rather a long succession of small shocks and small tangents. These eventually shook my concentration right off the rails.

The Reading Group, unhappily, displays little of the clarity of thought which these unique political times demand of our writers.

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