Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's taken me months (I kid you not) but I have finally arrived at the end of Alexis Wright's big Aboriginal novel Carpentaria. It's epic. Vast and fruitful and violent and teeming with story-spinning details, it switches in and out of tenses, idioms and eras with the agility of a school of flashing fish - sometimes in mid-sentence. It's hard to follow (by design, apparently), but if you go the distance with it, a world opens up around you opulent almost to the point of oppressive with power and life. It's continental in its scale, like Leslie Marmon Silko's 1992 Almanac of the Dead. Somewhat less apocalyptically than Silko's book, Carpentaria imagines a continent shucking off the accretions of settler society, the cycles of nature and of indigenous people's ancestors working together. But Wright's book conveys a more powerful sense of the natural world - the land, the sea, flocks of birds, schools of fish, weather systems, subterranean rivers - and of what it must be like to feel your human identity rooted deeply deeply in this power and its ever-unspooling stories. There's no romanticizing in the midst of this mythicizing; the story is hard, and the human characters are as complex and agitated as nature, but not without pathos. Wright's language is by turns oracular, colloquial and onomotopoeic-free associative. The sound track, though? Against a drone of Aboriginal singing the land made as much visible as audible by the flows of Wright's writing, it's an uncanny country and western.

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