In Alexis Wright’s novels, plot is only half the story. Praiseworthy, the longest work to date by the Stella and Miles Franklin prize-winning Waanyi writer, is an abundant odyssey that contains a formidable vision of Australia’s future. This is a long journey through the imagination, a novel both urgent and deeply contemplated.
Praiseworthy combines aspects from Wright’s other works: it has the many voices of Tracker, which gave written form to oral storytelling and history; it redeploys that unsettling but evocative blend of ironic humour and apocalyptic imagery found in The Swan Book; and it has the interweaving of ancestral myth and contemporary heroism from Carpentaria.
There are moments of exhilaration and epiphany in Alexis Wright’s new novel, Praiseworthy.Credit:Justin McManus
But in order to tell this story, which explores the multiple realities of Australia, Wright uses a distinct and sometimes challenging perspective, in which scenes and the familiar comforts of dramatic structure are subordinated to a kind of self-aware epic vision, as though the unfolding mysteries of Praiseworthy are being observed from outer space by an all-seeing, empathic god-figure.
The novel begins with the arrival of an environmental anomaly, a “haze” that takes up permanent residency above the north Australian town of Praiseworthy, where it becomes an anti-miracle signalling the end of days at the hands of the disturbed ancestral spirits of country. The plot revolves around the Steel family, fringe-dwellers in Praiseworthy, whose disparate lives take on the epic magnitude of Dreamtime myths and legends. But much like Wright’s The Swan Book – her bleakest speculation of a version of Australia in ruin – the use of Dreaming produces a nightmarish world.
The Steel family’s patriarch is a man of many names, including Planet (“because he was always talking planetary stuff”), Widespread (“for the breadth of his ideas”), and his birth name, Cause Man. He becomes ostracised for spreading prophecies of doom “about the destruction of the globe” and the “wrathful planet”. His popularity takes a mortal hit when he pursues Aboriginal economic independence with a transport conglomerate that involves herding thousands of donkeys into Praiseworthy.
Although Cause Man is convinced he will be the first Aboriginal billionaire, and that his plan will help “his people ride straight through the century on the back of the burning planet, and live to tell the tale on the other side”, his wife, Dance Steel, thinks her husband has gone mad: “Why had they survived since time immemorial? Their ancient Law. That’s what. This was what took care of business. Not idiots.”
While Cause Man travels through the Australian desert in search of the “God donkey”, and while Dance plans to escape to China by contacting people smugglers on the web, their sons Aboriginal Sovereignty and Tommyhawk experience crises of their own. Their fates are tied up in two epidemics sweeping through Praiseworthy, one make-believe, the other disbelieved by the white Australian government: an epidemic of child suicides, and one of paedophiles.
One early morning Aboriginal Sovereignty walks into the ocean to drown himself while Tommyhawk – who Cause Man labels the “assimilationist fascist” – stands on the shore to wish his elder brother good riddance. Tommyhawk idolises the white Australian way of life, causing his mind to be “eaten alive by a thought a virus, a pandemic, where every Aboriginal child was at risk”.
Brainwashed by the media, Tommyhawk believes Praiseworthy is overrun with “paedophile cockroaches living on Aboriginal communities and preying on Aboriginal children”, and that his brother is one of them. As a result, he feels no grief watching Aboriginal Sovereignty depart from this world.
But Aboriginal Sovereignty does not completely die. The mystery of his disappearance becomes the novel’s fixation: “nobody could say what it was that happened to Aboriginal Sovereignty, or what it meant.” And in a suave sleight-of-hand, Wright discovers a rich double-entendre in Aboriginal Sovereignty’s disappearance, in which he transforms from flesh and blood to an idea and allegory.
Alongside these trials and tribulations of the Steel family are subplots including the traitorous mayor Ice Pick, a “superhero cop” from Canberra who uses Minority Report-style ESP to solve crimes before they are committed; the agitation of ancestral spirits in the face of desecration; the clash of old laws and beliefs with the ramshackle legacy of Christian missionaries; the nuisance of countless starving donkeys; and the dance of butterflies and moths among the foreboding haze, all told in Wright’s charming narrative voice, a mixture of bemusement and incredulity at the behaviours of her own creations.
There are moments of exhilaration and epiphany to be found in Praiseworthy; there are also, in the peaks and troughs of its complex ambitions, moments of density and repetition.
Although the novel constantly returns to its twinned obsessions – Aboriginal sovereignty and a climate-changing world – these callbacks never felt extraneous. Instead, Wright circles back onto moments of great clarity and tragedy, searching them from all angles. This is a novel that speculates what the future might hold for Australia, while drawing from stories of the past in order to reflect on the present.
Australia, from Wright’s perspective, has a fractured soul. She makes no apologies for the stark portrayals of the ongoing injustice of assimilation policies and political indifference. And while its focus is Australia, both contemporary and unstuck in time, Wright’s imagination expands beyond national borders.
The rich interrelations of ancestral spirits, larger-than-life characters, and Country all derive from the Aboriginal traditions of storytelling. But there are also signs of literary influence from every compass point on the map, including, most notably, the surrealism and magic realism of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The depth of Alexis Wright’s knowledge of country and ancestral stories translates into a powerful understanding of contemporary Australia. Praiseworthy is an aria to the First Nations way of life – a grand story of the world today, and an allegory for the end of days.
Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright is published by Giramondo, $39.95.
Alexis Wright is a guest at Sydney Writers’ Festival (swf.org.au).
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