Ouyang Yu’s fifth novel is a fictionalised retelling of the life of William Edward “Billy” Sing, a Chinese-Australian soldier who achieved fame as a crack-shot sniper at Gallipoli. It’s also a dark and somewhat unhinged work, full of wild diatribes, grotesque visions, bitter jests and facile word games.
Billy is a melancholic loner, caught between two cultures with the benefit of neither. Growing up in country Queensland, he suffers a lot because of his mixed-race parentage. He spends his days masturbating, reflecting on empires and gunning down kangaroos. He also gets obsessed with the problem of money and how to get it.
“I warn you,” he tells the reader, “you have to live my intensity of loneliness and isolation and see with my eyes not lubricated with modern money but a heart intent on making it. You corrupt souls of post-mortem humanity.”
When the Great War breaks out, he joins the army and is sent to Gallipoli where he happily picks off hundreds of Turks in the gullies around Chatham’s Post. He knows that war is senseless waste – “a monster manufacturer of corpses” – but he’s still closer to happiness than he has ever been. “If you asked me to describe myself,” he says as he stalks yet another victim, “I’d say something like this: I kinda like what I do.”
This is historical fiction, of a kind, but the last thing Yu is interested in is an accurate depiction of Billy Sing’s life and times. Instead he gives us an impressionistic portrait of a man undone – driven out of his mind – by loneliness.
Every image is damp and dissolute and decayed, with blood and shit and sperm spattered on every other page. Add alcohol and the thought itself becomes sodden and sludge-like: “The faces started swimming in front of me, smalling, like those of the kangaroos, their bodies turning loose with beer or any liquid with a brand name that I couldn’t put a name to, bags of distending water fit to explode, one or two girlie giggles piercing as the canecutters, swiping the bar with their shrill decibels.”
Is this a kind of radical linguistic decolonisation? Conventional literary standards overturned? It is hard work for the reader, but there is a kind of indomitable solipsistic energy behind the messiness.
It may sometimes give off a strong whiff of putrefaction, but there is life in this strange book. JR
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 8, 2017 as "Ouyang Yu, Billy Sing". Subscribe here.