Cover of book: John A. Scott’s N

John A. Scott
John A. Scott’s N

Marketed as a “speculative historical thriller”, N is unashamedly ambitious: it’s a brick at 600 pages, and it grapples with those grand themes of war, love, art and death.

Set in an alternative Australia during the wartime years of 1942-45, the northernmost states quickly become occupied by the Japanese army, and dual giant trenches horizontally bisect the continent (some documentary painting by a war artist takes place in the no man’s land between).

The suspicious death of a politician results in a hung national parliament, and the right-wing opposition stages a coup, else “Democracy may well be lost forever”. New South Wales has been decimated by bombings, and the country’s administration falls to Melbourne (though it’s not long before politicians hurriedly abscond to nearby Mount Macedon). This corrupt new government spends the vast majority of its energy attempting to convince the public that the previous government was corrupt. As far as plot goes, all the necessary elements are present, snicking into place.

The characters of N fit just as neatly: politicians, artists, public servants, activists and soldiers, all interacting and playing at being at least semi-believable humans. Some of them fall in love and some don’t, some keep making art and some stop, some fight the system and some acquiesce.

Things happen to these characters – a polite amount of narrative unscrambling as pages are turned – and then it all stops at the last, leaving the reader with the right to ask the author, Why? Regrettably, the answer seems to be never much more than, Because I can. John A. Scott has invested his very considerable writerly energies in the “work” of this work of art, but between the flashes of potential we are left wondering what could have been.

N is clearly in thrall to postmodernist maximalist opuses such as Infinite Jest, The Recognitions, 2666, A Naked Singularity and Gravity’s Rainbow. You can tick off the elements: the irony and dark humour, the abundance of characters, the intertwining narrative threads, the temporal nonlinearity, the unexpected spurts of magic realism, and the employment of both real and imitation documentary materials. Structurally and stylistically, N has it all. But unlike all those works mentioned, it lacks impact. Label the absence what you will – substance, weight, heart, et cetera – but ultimately, here in this book are hundreds of pages of not much more than words. Rarely does a passage accelerate the breathing, or tense the neck muscles, or cause the curling of toes.

Not even the love stories cause anything to quicken (except perhaps the skimming of paragraphs). Missy Cunningham and Vic Turner’s overwrought affair is not much more than romance pulp, while widow Esther Cole and Robin Telford’s relationship is sedate, no matter its eventual twist.

The shortfall is a shame, because the setting of an imagined Australia has plenty of possibility. Gerald Murnane, Peter Carey and Wayne Macauley have postulated subtle “what if” scenarios that invoke a response, and there’s no time like the present for some more of this, please. Scott does endeavour to draw lines between history and the current day, especially with his clunky concluding few pages directly likening the migrant situation of World War II to the John Howard era (and in particular the “children overboard” affair, with the only illustration coming five pages from the end – a grainy photograph of the MV Tampa with souls in water surrounding).

But reality tweaked in fiction is a kind of legerdemain: it must be executed with great skill. What’s missing in N is the sensation of truth, the feeling in the reader that, even if completely farcical, the proposed events and settings are real.

Scott is an accomplished writer: he’s won Premier’s awards and has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin twice. Here again, his sentences are on the whole pristine, with clever metaphors, bold imagery and heterogeneous vocabulary. But really, who wants pristine to the utter exclusion of grime? Immaculate literature is forgettable, while grime sticks and riles. The reader of N yearns for some blemishes, some maniacal exuberance, some unorthodoxy, to grab them and drag them down into the muck.

Problems also abide above the sentence level. Many of the characters sound implausibly similar and they speak with clean poeticism, no matter their station or situation. (“I’ll leave direct from there,” says Roy, the social realist artist. “How it still raced, my loud-beating heart,” thinks Telford.)

Yet perhaps some of the staidness could have been avoided – without wanting to resort to that ill-advised catchcry of “This book needs an edit!” – if N was about half the length. The bigness of a book has nothing to do with the amount of paper on which it is printed.

It’s prudent to compare N to another recent Australian novel set in the same period, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan’s work, while attempting absolutely nothing new or even modern in terms of style or form, also draws on historical events to inform its narrative of loss and love. Because of its unflinching approach, it is brutal, forthright and, most importantly, deeply affecting. N, with its tricks and winks, forgets that lasting ideas need to be embedded deep in the reader’s emotional core.

As a long work of historiographic metafiction, N could be admired as a decent attempt to force entry of an unmistakably Australian book into the Big Postmodernist Novel Club. But because it doesn’t even try to bring something new to postmodernist storytelling, and because it is unnecessarily bloated, N disappoints overall.  TW

Brandl & Schlesinger, 600pp, $34.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 19, 2014 as "John A. Scott, N".

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