Novelist and playwright Peter Polites
Peter Polites was driving through Belmore with his mother in 2017 when she pointed to a house and started crying. Polites asked her what was going on, and she explained that when their family had first moved to the area, a woman had been murdered by her husband in that house.
This incident, a jag of tears cried at decades’ distance, became the impetus behind The Pillars, Polites’ second novel, published this month. “I had to think about how a home, a physical object in my neighbourhood, was a constant reminder to all the Greek women who lived around it,” he says. “They knew what happened in a house if they disobeyed, if they acted badly. That house stood like a warning to them. To begin with, The Pillars was trying to understand that, for me, this was just another house – but to my mother, and the council women who had been in that community for hundreds of years, it was something else.”
A house is always something else. It is Australia’s preferred zone of disorganised metonymy, standing for more trouble, hope and inequality than can easily be named. Who gets to have a house, and who doesn’t, and what happens to which kinds of people once they are inside them?
Polites grew up with a fear of homelessness. “In working-class communities,” he says, “and certainly in my family, there was just this language around not having a home, of being outside – and those were the threats. You needed to behave in a certain way, otherwise that’s what will happen to you.” He draws a line from “the shackles of colonisation, which we never broke”, to Australian housing’s potency of image. When necessary, we convert homes and houses into feebler metaphors, like avocado toast for boomer cruelty and millennial hunger, because they are too dense and strange to carry simple messages. But in conversation with Polites, and within his book, it is easy to see how all housing imagery is “hyper-masculine” and “hyper-racist”, and how both a woman being punished for stepping out of line and a migrant community being punished for failing to fit in are properties of an identical system.
The Pillars follows Polites’ first novel, 2017’s Down the Hume, a dark and funny story of abuse and addiction. Its cover showed a man in the blue-grey shadows of a bed, his face softly hidden, reflecting the novel’s noirish innards. When writing Down the Hume, Polites, who graduated from Sydney College of the Arts in 2003, pictured the mise en scène in three distinct colours: “that Australian bush green”, “that shitty dark blue”, and “that dark grey sky”. By contrast, he sees The Pillars as “sun-drenched noir” – red roofs and red bricks and lots of glossy white. The cover is a drone-shot fantasy of wide-laned, backyarded suburban life, with the brightness turned to overdrive and the image mirrored, suggestive of a rotten middle, a displeasing gap. The most familiar metaphor of the house in fiction is the haunted house, the “bad place”, but the lurid jacket of The Pillars insists to the viewer that bad places may be anywhere; they may be inescapable.
Polites as a speaker is crafted and swift, with a gift for complete paragraphs, as if he is reporting from a territory of thought that has already been decided and mapped. At one stage during our interview, he describes the interplay of two plotlines in his novel as “dumb binary thinking”. I ask him what he means. “Isn’t binary thinking dumb?” he asks. “Am I cancelled now? What’s going on?” But this is just a feint, a conversational concession; whatever may be going on, Polites knows what it is.
To any recent reader of Australian fiction, it has been impossible to miss a level of admiration for Polites that is rarely accrued by the debut novelist. Many writers have reputations as builders and makers, and many writers have reputations as energetic minds – the politest way I can think of to describe a tendency for minority writers to be valued for their “voice” and not their “craft” – but Polites simply has a reputation; his works are simply valued. Although both his novels contain elements of autobiography, as do the play scripts and short stories he has had published, they are clearly shaped in accordance with the needs of story; they form dramatic shapes, perhaps a result of his playwright background. The inevitability with which his characters slide towards their endings reveals that their fates were already decided on page one. His books are also sparkling and dirty; his narrators are observant, sometimes bitchy, and they get away with it, because they’re right.
In Polites’ method, character is a function of conflict, and the array of characters in The Pillars was designed specifically to drive conflict with Pano, the young narrator. The extremes of contrast with Pano in the middle are represented by his mother, who is mentally ill and has been traumatised by a lifetime of unstable housing, and by Kane, his “landlord and fuck buddy”, a white guy with a “competent” tribal tattoo who seduces Pano with his physicality. “If you have a weak personality, you can think posture is a form of charisma,” explains Polites.
Each of the characters has a fraught relationship to houses, which embody both their aspirations and their most obvious shadows, the disastrousness and likelihood of failure. These hopes and fears are crystallised in and exploited by Basil, a property developer who hires Pano as a freelance ghostwriter and eventually embroils him in a cynical scheme.
“The rich ethnic communities,” explains Polites, “Mediterranean, Lebanese, Greek, Italian – their parents have very ornate houses. A lot of hand-loomed things. Doilies on top of couches and porcelain decorations. Big ethnic balustrade columns. And my generation, the aspirational working-class community, has responded with this vulgar minimalism. It really just pops. It’s a sign of wealth for my generation, saying ‘I only have two colours in my house, that’s how wealthy I am.’”
Pano and Kane have a particular eye for decor, which Polites intends as “Kath and Kim-y, unaware of its own provinciality, like this country”. Pano is both the narrator and “the character who’s writing this book”, which Polites jokes is a psychological failsafe that protects the author from the consequences of revealing his own opinions. “He doesn’t understand how aspirational he is,” says Polites. “He’s studied the Bauhaus a bit, so he thinks he’s more interesting than those people who do black-and-white interiors.”
If you enjoy discomfort, you are likely to savour the way signs of queer belonging and markers of what Polites calls the “aspirational ethnic novel” are made to deliberately cross into each other’s neighbourhoods of meaning. It is uncomfortable because it speaks to the disguising abilities of any political language – which is able to expose and correct for certain inequalities while concealing and advancing others. Although Kane and Basil and Pano’s mother are interesting characters, this dual-edged power is most finely realised through Pano himself, whose ambivalent relationship to class, race and sexuality is expressed through actions that range from likeable to incredibly weaselly.
In the first instance, Polites is interested in the way that racial and economic prejudices are expressed through sexual “preferences”, perhaps the most genteel and pervertible word in the gay lexicon. “One thing I’ve noticed about my queer ethnic community, especially the cis males, is that dating is like an access point for them. If you date someone from an upper-middle-class background, that is a form of status for you. It’s a common thing, and I think that’s a form of aspiration too, even if they might look bohemian in the house.” For all Australians, who Polites reminds us are “the other Victorians”, dating is a tried and tested shortcut to improved status. But in cis male gay relationships, in which the effects of patriarchy are “amplified, not dimmed” – “that’s the nature of patriarchy, the nature of two men” – a toxic mix of power, sexuality and money runs like “a kind of mind virus through the male brain”, and is visible through racial romantic sorting. “If your dating résumé looks like a bunch of milk cartons, what are you saying about yourself?”
And yet that is only the first instance, the most visible expression of the issue at hand, which is that the language of liberation – such as discussing sexual preference – can be used to reinforce cultural parameters that may first seem unrelated. The Pillars is closely informed by Jasbir K. Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, a book published in 2007 and whose influence in both popular writing and theory is expanding. Puar discusses how queer ideologies may be used to advance the project of the nation-state, all under the sign of equality; nationalist projects can disguise themselves as progressive or radical, enforcing normativity in the name of tolerance.
Polites is fascinated by the co-opting of sexuality by the state and views the Australian same-sex marriage debate of 2017 as a question of “what kind of citizens we are going to be”. “If you look at the generic images coming out of the queer community, there is a very specific aesthetic going on that’s obviously tied to race and class,” he says. “Gay marriage happened, right? And there’s something beautiful about the campaign, right? As if anyone’s going to vote against Magda Szubanski. She’s Australia’s sweetheart. You put Magda against Lyle fucking Shelton, it’s a no-brainer, right? But there was also this conservatising of our community.” He points out that the same legal system has advanced both same-sex marriage rights and a refugee policy that fills offshore prisons with queer detainees.
During the interview, which is late in the day, with both of us tired, I ask Polites if he takes a special interest in hypocrisy, and if he would say this special interest suffuses his work. He cautiously agrees, and only when listening to the phone recording do I pick up this note of caution. Of course, he is agreeing out of politeness only, because I have risked a simplification of his work – looking at the symptom and mistaking it for the source.
Polites is really interested in contradiction: in the capacity of individuals to believe contradictory things; in the ability of communities to contradict themselves; in the interplay of surfaces with multiple interiors, including the various genre tropes his novels put to use. Queer fiction, sun-drenched noir and “aspirational ethnic novels”: what do they facilitate for their characters, their readers? Why are they psychically gooey, or psychically crunchy – what bruised segments of the social id might each genre be pushing, and if you shift the pressure to the left or right – what then? A set piece in The Pillars that centres on a meth orgy was written not to upset and delight participants, like other meth orgies I know, but to dramatise the same power differential that is demonstrated by certain militaries, or certain zoning laws. “You can be a total slut monster but still operate within a hegemonic discursive framework,” Polites says. “There’s nothing radical about reinforcing dominant discourse. To me, that’s the opposite of sexual liberation. There’s nothing liberated, there’s nothing unique, there’s nothing radical about the way these characters enact their sexuality or their lifestyles, you know?”
It is a bleak reading, a bleak judgement. He gets away with it because he’s right. And still, the book is not bleak; instead, it is “suffused” not with bleakness but with a kind of humanism. We understand why the characters do deplorable things; they “misidentify economic security for emotional security”, explains Polites. “To become part of an aspirational community, to pursue success and money at all costs, there’s an element of yourself you have to cleave, and that’s what this character does.” What actually is a house? It could be everything, or anything. What wouldn’t a person do to get a thing like that?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Moody interiors". Subscribe here.