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The Narrow Road to the Deep North

February 20, 2015

FlanaganRichard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 2013

After reading Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, I resolved not to read any more of his books. His exuberant style had taken me on a wild, exhilarating ride, but the flatness of the characters rendered me immune to their suffering and the book’s unrelenting violence seemed pointless.

I’m glad I broke my resolution and tackled The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The core of the book, one day in the life of prisoners of war who were forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway, presents “a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal.” This world is peopled with characters we can believe in, so that the narrative is both harrowing and compelling.

Flanagan pulls us into the centre of a terrible event in our history and makes us feel what it was like. He also takes us into the heads of the Japanese characters, both during the war and afterwards, so that we understand them as real people who struggle, rather than just monsters. These achievements are perhaps the main reason reviewers have described it as a “masterpiece”, a “triumph”, and “beyond comparison”.

Yet our premier poet, Les Murray, described it as a “pretentious, stupid book”. And poet Michael Hofmann wrote a scathing review in the London Review of Books, accusing other reviewers of being hoaxed by “rubble, fragmentary junk, debris. It’s not even leaky anymore; it can hold nothing.” Hofmann suggested the manuscript, like the other drafts, should have been used to “light the barbie”.

I disagree with Murray and Hofmann, but I can see how some elements of the book might have started them on the road to their extreme assessments. While the central core – the single day of POW life – is totally convincing, the parts of the book before and after it are less so. To me, Dorrigo Evans’ affair with his uncle’s wife Amy seems contrived. Writers are allowed to strive for effect, but it is when the reader notices this striving that it becomes a problem. He tries to convince us of the greatness of their love: “For Amy, love was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe. It was annihilation, the destroyer of worlds.” That the book made the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award suggests that Flanagan might have been trying too hard.

But such quibbles cannot explain Hofmann’s hatchet job. He sees no merit in the book at all, and quotes passages to demonstrate the awfulness of the writing. One of these passages has also been quoted by other reviewers (eg Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers) to demonstrate the book’s literary merit:

Dorrigo Evans is not typical of Australia and nor are they: volunteers from the fringes, slums and shadowlands of their vast country: drovers, trappers, wharfies, roo shooters, desk jockeys, dingo trappers and shearers.  They are bank clerks and teachers, counter johnnies, piners and short-price runners, susso survivors, chancers, larrikins, yobs, tray men, crims, boofheads and tough bastards blasted out of a depression that had them growing up in shanties and shacks without electricity, with their old men dead or crippled or maddened by the Great War and their old women making do on aspro and hope, on soldier settlements, in sustenance camps, slums and shanty towns, in a nineteenth-century world that had staggered into the mid-twentieth century.

Hofmann comments: “The choice slang (‘desk jockeys’, ‘aspro’, ‘crims’) masks the somewhat indifferent or disingenuous quality of the thought here: because ‘typical of Australia’ is of course exactly what this one-for-the-price-of-two catalogue means to be, and is.” This comment suggests to me that Hofmann comprehensively misses the point, as Booker Prize Chair Anthony Grayling claims. Yet Hofmann is a distinguished poet and translator who has won numerous prizes.

Perhaps Hofmann did see the point but considered it trite. He saw the whole book as trite. His lengthy review lists a swarm of faults, but one theme is that, like a Hollywood film, the novel is “in competition with itself, falling over itself to offer you more interiority, more action, more understanding, more vision … You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew.”

Michael Hofmann appears to have an idiosyncratic view of what a novel should attempt: the writer must take the narrow road to the deep probing of a small part of the world. There are many great novels that embrace such a restriction. But the novelistic form will burst out of any set of rules for writing it, and transport us into stories, people and events in a vast diversity of ways.

I am grateful that Flanagan did not limit himself to Hofmann’s preferences.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2015 5:23 pm

    It’s bizarre, isn’t it? It’s not just bizarre that these two critics think this way, but also that they chose to write such hostile reviews.
    Anyway, I’m glad you liked it:)

  2. Bryce permalink*
    February 25, 2015 2:24 pm

    It is bizarre, especially Hofmann’s review. Les Murray’s comment might have been a spontaneous reaction to Abbot’s alteration of the panel’s decision. But Hoffman’s piece was deliberate vitriol from beginning to end. It could be seen as a fascinating (but repellent) work of art in itself.

  3. April 21, 2015 12:31 am

    I hadn’t seen that review Bryce, but it sounds like, as you imply, this is just not Hoffman’s sort of book. It’s OK not to like a book, but to be vitriolic is another whole thing. Like another reviewer of another book, an idiosyncratic but warm and funny book, who write “I cannot be kind”. Why can’t you I thought. You can always be kind, even if you don’t like it.

    I love that he chose the same quote as Lisa (and I must say I like the quote Lisa chose!). I often wonder whether that will happen to me i.e. I choose a quote that I think evidences wonderful writing only to have someone choose it for the exact opposite reason.

    Anyhow, I’m glad you like it. The thing about Flanagan is that his books are rarely the same – so never give up just because you don’t like one, I’d say. Though, interestingly, the one that would have made me think of giving him up would not have been Gould, but The unknown terrorist (at least I think that was the title.)

    • April 21, 2015 8:22 am

      *snap* Sue, I would say exactly the same thing: don’t judge Flanagan by The Unknown Terrorist because it’s not representative of his work at all.
      By the time I’d read that I’d read his earlier novels, and I was expecting it to be similarly brilliant – but when it turned out to be a thriller written to score a certain political PoV, I was worried that Flanagan was going to do what some writers do: write popular fiction to pay the bills and subsidise the kind of writing that they really want to do. Nothing wrong with that – e.g. John Banville does it, but his popular fiction is marketed under a different name so that you know which ones you want to buy, which segment of the market you belong in.

      • April 21, 2015 8:34 am

        I wondered Lisa whether it was more than simply scoring that PoV but an active attempt to reach an audience that might not read him usually and that might benefit from thinking about that PoV? Or, it may just be that he wanted to give writing a thriller a go but discovered it wasn’t really him.

      • April 21, 2015 9:29 am

        Sue, I think it was the former, trying to reach an audience with his PoV (which incidentally I agree with) so I think his intentions were worthy, but it’s such an awful book!

      • April 21, 2015 3:05 pm

        Yes, that’s what I thought … Good intentions but didn’t work.

  4. Bryce permalink*
    April 21, 2015 9:26 am

    Thanks Sue and Lisa, After Deep Road I am open to reading more of Flanagan, but will definitely avoid The Unknown Terrorist. And Sue, I agree, reviewers can be critical of a book but still kind to its author, although sometimes reading (or writing?) a hatchet job can be fun. Hofmann’s review was entertaining, in an awful sort of way.

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