Books

Fiona McGregor
Buried Not Dead

Someone – nobody is sure who – once quipped that writing about music is like dancing about architecture – an awkward and unnecessary translation. This quip thrums a warning: stay in your lane or risk being ridiculous.

Writer and performance artist Fiona McGregor’s work takes just this kind of formal and imaginative risk. Transgression – going beyond – is one of its features. Buried Not Dead collects essays written over 25 years. They translate music and visual arts – bodies of work and lives McGregor has witnessed and been part of – into words.

Whether driving to visit her friend, retired DJ Lanny K, in the Canberra suburbs, or weaving memories of Latai Taumoepeau’s body-centred performance art with news of her illness and hospitalisation, the shape and rhythm of McGregor’s prose shift in response to her subject. Fleeting comments on “jazz’s aleatoric imperative” and the “aphoristic structure” of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts capture traits in her writing. Her language has the current and light Roland Barthes imagines as a lover’s signature; words are a way of touching, as if “I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words”.

There’s something magnificently tactile, porous and open about McGregor’s style, a characteristic apparent from her early novel Au Pair (1993) and award-winning story collection Suck My Toes (1994), whose linked stories helped to establish the clunkily labelled “dirty realism” of the era, meaning, among other things, that the body isn’t erased or beautified. Her most recent novel, Indelible Ink (2013), focuses on the pleasure and pain experienced through the body’s largest organ, the skin.

In Buried Not Dead, her eighth book, McGregor gets in close to her subjects. Although she values community, there’s a degree of deliberate personal reserve; she observes herself observing. This candour – allowing and witnessing the flux of her responses – enacts a vulnerability Melissa Febos describes in her similarly transgressive book Abandon Me. If you want to write about something, look at it “long enough that your own reflection fades. If you want to write about yourself … meet your own gaze with the same attention”.

McGregor’s essays look at what Febos calls “the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you”. Thinking of Lanny’s suburban comfort, McGregor remembers that once she “quixotically thought that art should go first and security last. I no longer think I did the right thing in following this”. Or how, as a young autodidact, most theory felt “too difficult or boring to read, and I do not say that with pride”. And that, “through all these decades of Baudrillardian sophistry… I haven’t been able to relinquish notions of honesty and soul”. Likewise, her essay on Marina Abramović parses her subject’s work in jolts of affinity and repugnance.

Other essays are unambivalent. “Where Your Cabaret Comes From” assembles blazing slivers of the “twilit, body-based, transgressive” world of Sydney’s queer underground cabaret, mostly in the 1990s. Collage-like, the prose pulses with the communal exaltation sparked by art built around “radical sexuality and politics”. Lyric vignettes celebrate the “emanation of pure animal joy” inspired by performers such as spoken word artist Candy Royalle (vale) and burlesque performance artist Imogen Kelly – “her slim lithe body all over that sofa like a licorice strap”. Yet “the thumbscrews were tightening” and the freedoms McGregor depicts are crimped by a cycle of puritanism, proscription and punishment.

McGregor’s performance work tends to durational forms, emphasising stamina in near-unendurable conditions. This crosses into writing about what endures: resilience and steadiness are held in tension with tenderness and tending, with its echoes of nurture, gentleness and inclination.

McGregor pays attention, bringing the reader to sit with her subjects while she is interlocutor and listener, creating space for others to speak. McGregor’s empathy and receptivity are clear when she explores the activist work of artist and producer Jiva Parthipan, or sits in a kitchen eating sandwiches while Cindy Ray/Bev Nicholas recounts how she became “one of the first female tattoo artists of the modern Western world”.

But for all this attentive tenderness, there is also breakage – of taboos, or privacies that protect vested interests that destroy others’ freedom. In these moments, spiky syntax, clipped pace and jagged rhythms replace joyful lyricism and slow observation. McGregor is alert to overt and covert violence. She respects survivors’ endurance, interrogating ideas of Australia that try to veil violent history. “Dear Malcolm” – which emerged from the public humiliation that masqueraded as a democratic process, the $80.5 million 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey – is hot with fury, yet icily measured in its reply-all letter cataloguing homophobic injustice and abuse.

She looks at racism and knee-jerk, habitual misogyny – “The Hot Desk” brilliantly splices readings of Tim Winton and Mary Fallon’s Working Hot –  and examines heteronormativity’s capacity to erase and exile people. And she describes the crushing of artists – not celebrities, she’s terrific on the distinction – by poverty and blustering puritanism.

Joyful, furious or tender, these essays read art the way McGregor first read Fallon, “for the sex, the wit, the sheer gutsy splendour of the language”, assessing power and powerlessness, and never forgetting bodies that are abused, excluded and bruised.

Like bodies on the dance floor, the pieces move with and around each other, with some bumpier collisions. Beyond this book there seems to be the promise of a larger work about resilience and endurance, focusing the light of retrospect on today’s shadows. For now, this is a collision of sinuous, sometimes savage essays, insouciant about purposeless propriety and unapologetically full of honesty and soul. 

Felicity Plunkett

Giramondo, 304pp, $26.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Buried Not Dead, Fiona McGregor".

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Reviewer: Felicity Plunkett