If you had to argue for the merits of one Australian book, one piece of writing, what would it be? Welcome back to our occasional series in which our authors make the case for a work of their choosing. See the end of this article for information on how to get involved.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall arose the idea, perhaps most famously espoused by political theorist Francis Fukuyama, that history had ended: that in supposedly achieving the worldwide hegemony of liberal democracy, provisioned by the free market, human society had reached its developmental telos, its final and perfect form.
From this point of view, the future would be, as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has relished putting it, “the present plus more options”. We had entered, and would commence now to consolidate, a new age – the first truly global one – of enlightenment.
For many, however, the utopianism of figures like Fukuyama was never more than an apology for an incredibly destructive political and economic program; the claim that we had rid ourselves of ideology never more than an ideological one.
Only very slowly – though perhaps there has been an acceleration in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis – has this assessment gained broader traction. It seems increasingly difficult to deny that our allegedly fully enlightened earth, to borrow a phrase from the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, radiates disaster triumphant.
A good many films and books have emerged to articulate this growing consciousness. Mainstream interest seems especially to have alighted on the apocalyptic spectacle of the one-percenter orgy: on the Gordon Gekkos, the Jordan Belforts, the Jeffrey Skillings.
Fewer works have attempted to chart what the last several decades of capitalist “progress” have done to the lives and the life-worlds of ordinary people.
I know of none that does so more successfully – or that has captured more clearly or disturbingly, for that matter, the apocalyptic aspect of triumphalist neoliberalism – than Capital, Volume One, by the Australian writer Anthony Macris (who, I should point out, is Associate Professor in Creative Writing at UTS, where I’m completing my PhD).
First published by Allen & Unwin in 1997, then reissued in a new edition by the University of Western Australia Press in 2013, it has on both occasions offered a powerful and timely contribution to our thinking about these issues.
The first book of a projected trilogy – the superb second instalment of which, Great Western Highway, was published after much delay in 2012 – Capital takes place primarily, over the course of just a few minutes in the early 1990s, in the crush of a London Underground station.
But it also journeys out through time and space to interrogate many of the difficulties and disorientations that have characterised urban life in the developed world over the last half-century: from the rise of precarious labour to the metastasis of commodity culture, from the fog of an ever-present nostalgia to the anhedonic calculations of sexual exchange.
Both below ground and above it, the novel is, as the critic Gerard Windsor aptly put it, “a study in suffocation”, its narrative “a push-and-shove of frustration, minor injury, abuse, weariness, vomit, unwanted intimacy, isolation, [and] bullying”.
With remarkable precision it traces out, to quote the Author’s Note from Great Western Highway, “the small betrayals of conscience, the minor humiliations, the acts of unwilling complicity, the seemingly inconsequential deferrals to power” that make up so much of contemporary life.
Capital understands that these “nagging, unsolvable dilemmas of the everyday” place us in the thin of thick things.
Indeed, I think the real power of this book flows from its philosophical ambition. Through its attention to the minutiae of suffering, to the suffering of minutiae, it addresses itself to a set of questions that could hardly be more pressing.
What has become of consciousness itself as more and more regions of our lives have been colonised by the logic of the market? What has happened to the subjectively experienced texture of the world? To the dignity of objects within it? To the nature of meaning? To the meaning of nature?
What has happened, as a consequence of all this, to our sense of social and political possibility? What, in short, are the results to date, at the deeper levels of self and world, of this immense experiment our society has been performing on itself?
An experiment in content and form
Worth pointing out above all is the fact that the novel is itself an experiment.
That is, it makes a bold attempt to articulate its concerns not only at the level of its content, but in its form. Not enough to write a novel about life under unfettered global capitalism: the prose itself must somehow express that system’s forces or, as Macris has himself written, “embody” them.
The meticulously styled prose of which Capital is woven emerges as a tissue of uncanny repetitions, its deadpan narrator – if in fact it can be said to have one – as an obsessive-compulsive god, trapped in a mirror maze. Almost everything is describable in Capital, but for this very reason almost everything remains strangely opaque. To know the world as an expression of capital is to be estranged from it; to master the world thus is to have it slip beyond your grasp.
Those who read for the story, or for the characters, or for any number of other generic conventions of the mass market novel may feel bewildered. But those who persist will be rewarded with what is at once a crystallisation and an indictment of the way our habituation to such categories has impoverished our thinking.
Macris belongs to a tradition of writers for whom, if it isn’t novel, it isn’t a novel. In this, as in the complexity of his engagement with literary history and his conception of literature as a serious mode of thought, he is someone whose lead many Australian novelists could do worse than follow.
Perhaps most impressively of all, Macris was in his mid-thirties when Capital earned him a shortlisting for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It’s regrettable that we live in a reading culture in which young writers who are this critically acute and intellectually ambitious are a rarity.
Are you an academic or researcher? Is there an Australian book or piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical – you would like to make the case for? Contact the Arts + Culture editor with your idea.
The case for Gularabulu by Paddy Roe
The case for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson
The case for Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance
The Case for John Bryson’s Evil Angels
The case for Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom
The case for Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters by Johnny Warren
The case for The Ghost’s Child by Sonya Hartnett