John A. Scott - a prose epic of an alternative WW2.Reading N is a bit like doing a jigsaw that you think is going to give you a woman of Manet’s and instead yields the dislocations and fetishes of a mature Picasso
John A. Scott, N., Brandl & Schlesinger, 2014.
When this extraordinary novel appeared in Australia last April, one reviewer grouped it with "postmodernist maximalist opuses such as Infinite Jest, The Recognitions, 2666, A Naked Singularity and Gravity's Rainbow." The Pynchon reference is probably the most relevant: The novel takes place during the same World War II period, veers from documentary realism to outlandish fantasy, and indicts industrialists as the real warmongers, putting profits over patriotism. And like Pynchon's V., Scott's N is a quest for the meaning of a mysterious initial by an individual driven to expose the secret history of his country. N is an alternative history along the lines of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here or Philip Roth's The Plot against America: Scott imagines a rightwing takeover of Australia in 1942 and an invasion by the Japanese, both of which entails persecution of the dissenting artists who dominate the first half of the novel. A civil servant named Telford dominates the second half as he begins to realize the nature of the fascist regime for which he works. Linking the two halves are two redhead women who resemble each other, and uniting the lengthy novel is a web of intertextual references to classic works of fiction like Gulliver's Travels, Great Expectations, "The Purloined Letter," Through the Looking-Glass, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, not to mention a few references to Joyce's Ulysses and a cameo by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, sitting out the war in the wilds of Australia (a comic episode conveyed in the style of Great Expectations). Formally and politically, N resembles Dos Passos' USA, alternating between the personal stories of a dozen or so characters and a variety of documents, each in a different font, privileging heterogeneity over the homogeneity demanded by conservative regimes and aesthetics. This bold, important novel is worth seeking out. - STEVEN MOORE
John Scott’s previous novel, Warra Warra (2003), was a ghost story in which the people of an Australian country town were gradually displaced by the dead from an airliner crash. It was possible to enjoy its suspense and horror without recognising it as an allegory of the displacement of Aboriginal people – David Mesher has explicated the parallels and, indeed, the absence of any Aboriginal characters in the town and the Britishness of the ghosts suggest that he is right. Scott’s new novel, N, is longer and more ambitious than any of his previous works, but it develops the interest in the parallel possibilities of Australian history that is evident in Warra Warra. In this case, it is Australia’s experience of the Second World War.
Many readers will be familiar with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947), written while the Second World War was in progress. There, the book’s co-authors, Marjorie Barnard and Florence Eldershaw, imagine a future Australia defeated by the Japanese, with pioneering patriots heading out into the desert to establish a new society. They were, of course, hoping that Australia might become a better society after the war, and they imagined a ‘utopian’ society of the future looking back on the humble ways of ordinary Australians of the past. In the Notes to N, Scott tells us that he has ‘written over’ Erle Cox’s forgotten novel Fool’s Harvest (1939) to imagine the invasion of Sydney, and that he has treated other fictional imaginings of the invasion of Australia, presumably including Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, as ‘non-fictional (historical) texts’. His novel layers fiction upon fiction, though somewhere, deep below the surface, there is a nugget of historical fact.
From August to October 1941, the Australian government was in crisis, with the Country Party’s Arthur Fadden taking over as Prime Minister after the forced resignation of Robert Menzies from the leadership of the United Australia Party. Two independents, Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles, held the balance of power and, in October, they voted against supply to Fadden’s government. It was only the intervention of the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, that secured a seamless transfer of power to the Labor Party by convincing the independents to support John Curtin. Curtin was not elected to his legendary position as Australia’s wartime leader.
Scott considers the possibilities of this forgotten constitutional crisis. What if one of the independents had died before the confidence vote in Curtin and an Emergency Government, ready to surrender to the Japanese for commercial advantage, had been set up? What if the Japanese had taken the next step and mounted a full attack on Sydney, so that Sydney experienced the wartime travails of Singapore? It is not so far-fetched, and Scott’s speculations are supported by elements of recent Australian political history – a government relying on independent members to continue in power, a powerful business class willing to risk Australian lives for profit, a public with no sympathy for refugees from wars where Australia is participating.
N draws on a range of accounts and fictions about the War to create its speculative version of the years from September 1941 to May 1945, with a brief afterword from October 2001 that lets us know the kind of government Australians experience in the twenty-first century. The novel shifts from third person narrative to the voices of several characters: principally Missy Cunningham, the de facto wife of the Social Realist artist Roy Cunningham, and Robin Telford, a Public Servant working for the inner circle of the Emergency Government. These two voices represent the two main aspects of Australian society that absorb Scott’s attention – the group of anti-fascist artists living in Melbourne, and the machinations of the Vichy-style government of Warren Mahony, directing events from Mount Macedon. Art and politics are the two focuses of the novel, though there are digressions to observe the front line, the treatment of prisoners of the Japanese, and some strange experiments in the outback.
At the beginning at least, the novel moves at a fast pace, shifting from one character to another and drawing on the reader’s knowledge of some of the models for its fiction. Albie Henningsen, the ghost writer for Frank Clune and an ardent proponent of accommodation of the Japanese, is clearly a version of P. R. Stephensen. The artists, Vic Turner, Leon Mischka and Roy Cunningham, frequent Nibbi’s Leonardo Art bookshop in Little Collins Street and mix in Melbourne’s Bohemia with real figures such as David Strachan, Sam Atyeo and Gino Nibbi. They are all members of the Contemporary Art Society in the same circle as Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Russell Drysdale. Reginald Thomas, a fictional minor novelist and playwright, also figures in the narrative as he begins to experience visions of the future and becomes suspect under the new Emergency laws.
The plausibility of this wartime situation drives the novel in its first sections, as the narrative shifts from scenes among the artists, to the bombing of Darwin, to Missy’s account from the domestic edge of the art world. Her husband develops tuberculosis and is institutionalised; Turner, running from his love for Missy, finds himself with Mischka at Tocumwal army camp as part of the Defence Forces. Henningsen risks all in a public meeting where he declares that Australia should recall the AIF, declare national independence from Britain and conclude a separate peace with Japan. In no time, he is incarcerated.
Scott offers a virtuoso demonstration of different genres – Missy’s first person accounts, Turner’s Tocumwal diaries, excerpts from Hansard, newspaper clippings, intelligence files, Henningsen’s desperate letters from prison, extracts from Thomas’s plays. Each section is brief and often in an appropriate typeface. Yet each is carefully written; Scott clearly loves the precise, controlled English of an earlier generation – even Missy always writes in a formal style, usually referring to her son as ‘the boy’. He gives a succinct account of the panic as the Japanese attack Sydney and the consequent stream of refugees to the south. Mahony, as new wartime leader, announces that 27 July 1942 ‘will surely go down in history as the darkest hour of our great Nation’, telling the people that Curtin, most of the Labor opposition and other politicians have fled to New Zealand.
At this point, the novel moves into dystopian speculation about the Japanese occupation and the treacherous Emergency Government. Turner travels north to find the fighting is at a stalemate, with both sides dug in somewhere in the Riverina. Missy’s brother, the patriotic army officer John Menadue, provides some insight into the overseas war, and eventually deserts to become a guerrilla in the Australian countryside. Turner is captured and forced to endure privations similar to those on the Thai-Burma railway line. Missy, left alone with her son in Melbourne, observes the repression directed at artists – one of the first acts of the government is to wall in the area of Melbourne where the artists hang out, creating a ghetto.
*N is a sprawling, inventive, engaging novel that draws in a large cast of characters and a major national crisis. But by its mid-point it appears to have left its author’s control. Missy’s position in Melbourne gives her no vantage point to add much to the national narrative, and her menfolk have dispersed to incarcerations of various kinds. All of them – Thomas, Henningsen, Turner, Cunningham, Menadue – have little means of knowing what is going on in their immediate vicinity, let alone the nation or the wider world. A new voice, that of Robin Telford, assistant to the Secretary of the War Cabinet, takes the stage and he increasingly dominates the book. Despite his proximity to power, Telford has little grasp on national events until he is approached by the widow of Norman Cole, the dead independent, to investigate Cole’s death. He spends most of the later part of the novel searching missing files, riffling through documents, and occasionally visiting some of the other characters, such as the visionary Thomas, now kept in appalling deprivation in an institution for the insane.
The novel moves towards the detective or thriller genre. The problem is that, by this point, the Japanese have taken over most of the nation. The disposal of Cole to ensure their easy access to Australia seems a minor issue, given the crisis that ensues. Even after he has the facts, Telford is in no position to bring any justice to bear on the situation – the only resolution can be the defeat of Japan by the United States forces, which duly occurs. So the novel seems to be pursuing a pointless narrative trail.
Scott’s very inventiveness, the way he finds prolific possibilities in every situation, and his love for ‘writing over’ the literature of the past – Swift, Sterne, Joyce and Poe are specifically invoked – means that the novel moves in many directions at once, until it comes to rest on Telford’s rather stilted and silly accounts of his wanderings in a tunnel below the Prime Minister’s house in Mount Macedon. Telford describes it himself: ‘a garish tale limned by a scribbler in pompous style’. Like Telford entering the world behind his mirror, Scott seems to enter a labyrinth of stories, all apparently equally interesting to him, though not equally revealing to readers – and too many of them are dead ends. In one section, Missy’s son Ross speaks for the first time, suddenly taking us into what seems to be a brilliant pastiche of Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850). Ross is never heard from again. The most recent issue of Southerly contains a 45-page story, ‘André Breton in Melbourne (1942)’ which, Scott tells us, was originally part of the manuscript of this novel. This, too, is engaging and witty fiction that demonstrates the author’s ability to imitate other writers and invoke their philosophy. Though it is more playfully surrealist than the published novel, it also includes incarceration and a journey through a labyrinthine underworld. It is a relief that Scott excised it from the novel. There are many more sections that might have gone the same way.
While it is voluminous, N is not encyclopaedic, and the absences in its vision of Australia in surrender become more obvious as the novel progresses. It offers us an exciting glimpse of the attack on Sydney from the perspective of a journalist called Walter Burton, but no other encounter with the battle front, and Burton never appears again in the novel. Its focus on Melbourne means that it can give little account of Australia under occupation, though it summarises horrendous details of rape and murder in the north, based on accounts of the fall of Nanking. Vic Turner and the other captured Australian soldiers suffer the deprivations that Richard Flanagan made the central scenes of his recent The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013), but Scott merely touches on these – perhaps thinking them familiar to most Australians, or a horrific reality too far for a hyperfiction.
Barnard Eldershaw’s interest in the lives of working Australian people is nowhere here: N is about the artistic and the political classes, not the working class. The fascism of the Emergency Government is most evident in its repression of artistic life, beginning with the compiling of a register of artists, poets and writers of fiction, and dissenting intellectuals. There is no hint that the Australians of the suburbs or working city are suffering similar deprivations of liberty and material benefit.
Scott conveys the decadence and cruelty of the Mahony regime through some grotesque ‘national’ spectacles. To entertain his Japanese guests and an apparently blood-hungry Melbourne public, Mahony commissions a re-enactment of the Gallipoli landing to be performed in the Melbourne Cricket Ground before the running of the Melbourne Cup (also at the MCG):
Given the gargantuan task of constructing the battle-site, the fighting was over remarkably quickly. That the Australians were using live ammunition in their rifles proved a decisive factor in the outcome; the Turks, piteously firing off blank after blank, found themselves overrun in little more time than it took to scale the cliff-face. Indeed the scoreboard, which had been given over to record the numbers of the dead on either side, was hard-pressed to keep up its tally of the enemy. ANZAC losses were light, with most casualties resulting from the collapse of part of the papier-maché cliff-top during an impromptu attempt to plant the Australian flag. The success of the Australian attack did guarantee however there would be ample time for lunch before the running of the Cup, at two.
The horse race, though, becomes apocalyptic with four horses taking to the air, and the Prime Minister suffering premonitions of the world’s end. A few pages later, Telford tells us about another symbolic spectacle orchestrated by Mahony – this time a boxing match in the ballroom of his grand Mount Macedon house between an Australian private and a red kangaroo. The kangaroo kills the soldier and, in the second bout, a Japanese soldier kills the kangaroo. These scenes are set-pieces, symbolic tableaux rather than integral parts of a narrative; they have no apparent consequences.
Readers may be familiar with this kind of satirical, speculative, symbolic fiction that claims to offer political insight into actual national experience. The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez set writers on this path and others, such as Salman Rushdie, have demonstrated its application to the madness of repressive regimes across the world. David Brooks invokes Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) in his back-cover comments on this book. In Australia, Rodney Hall attempted something similar with his novel, Kisses of the Enemy (1987), another bloated dystopian vision of an Australian fascist government. Speculative fictions can be both satirically entertaining and politically insightful, even lethal in their effects on a real world. But the political base for such fantastic treatments needs to be secure before the invention takes off. Scott offers a narrow political perspective where the greatest crime is the repression of art and artists. In N he proposes that artists are at the frontline of political freedom. Lock them up (even lunatics like Henningsen), and a nation is in trouble.
The conviction that political events exist primarily as material for art is stated blatantly in the first pages of the novel when Vic Turner visits the ship, Ville de Nancy, which is full of refugee children from Europe and has been turned back by Australia. Turner draws the ship and the children peering over its side, aware of their impending fate. But his excitement comes from finding a subject:
He will paint this ragged ship. He will paint the darkened faces. He will paint the rust; and the red of it shall be his never-ending accusation. And he sees that moment how the painting will be the measure of meaning, the act against which his life will be measured, irrational and doubt-ridden though his attempts might appear. Such that, on his very death bed, should he find someone close to him, a voice whispering, What does it mean? What is the answer? his one reply, inescapably, will be that single, fierce imperative—Paint!
Here ‘Paint!’ and Turner’s urgent search for the precise colour of the rust can only appear a self-indulgent and futile response to cruelty and injustice. In a discussion with Mischka, Turner admits that he envies the oppression of others because it gives them the authority to create. Scott, too, may be suffering from oppression-envy – he needs to invent urgent times as the subject for his art. His ‘Artists Against Fascism’ represent an incipient modernism allied with communism that was suppressed in Australia, denounced in the novel by Mahony’s Minister for Culture for ‘degenerate images [that] suggest only weakness and an escape into the world of dreams’, but Scott’s version of them makes them distant from any political solidarity with workers, let alone international justice.
It is obvious that the fate of the Ville de Nancy and Australians’ support for the deportation of refugees also refer to the current attitude of Australians to asylum seekers. In case we miss it, Scott ends his novel with an Afterword recounting a version of the Children Overboard incident of 2001 and the contemporary Prime Minister’s response, including his belief that the alliance with America will mean that ‘Together they will rule for a thousand years’. So the novel ends with a clear political statement about current Australia and its relationship to American imperialism.
Scott, like his Artists Against Fascism, takes a political stand. Yet the priorities of the novel are artistic rather than political. It is a novel about art-making, particularly reading, storytelling and imaginative invention. As well as the artists, the novel is full of writers, some apparently vying with Scott to create the fantastic elements of the narrative: Thomas cannot keep from envisioning events in government; Henningsen imagines an inland sea and a ship, another Nancy, for Burke and Wills to sail on; a character call Wood-Conroy seems to be manipulating political events from deep inside government intelligence; Mahony believes that his autobiography is needed to establish his legend. Then there are the literary models underlying Scott’s narrative: for a while Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’ takes over Telford’s account. Missy’s voice is refreshingly ordinary and domestic – but she is only a woman and not even an artist, let alone an intellectual. When it is revealed that her name is Hannah, it is difficult not to feel that Scott has diminished her deliberately by giving her a childish pet name.
Perhaps, this is no more than the exasperation of a reader coming to the conclusion of a long novel, full of virtuoso writing and some brilliant ideas, only to find that it ends in obvious, even easy, political comment. Scott writes with a seemingly effortless command of language, and his knowledge of literature and Australian cultural history is immense. His debunking of national mythologies about selfless Australian participation in the two World Wars is an important counter to the current national self-congratulation and complacency about the past. Certainly, his speculation that, if a threat such as the Japanese invasion arose in our present nation, the Australian public and its politicians might well capitulate for commercial advantage gives pause for thought.
Yet Scott’s very inventiveness tempts him away from the issue at hand, so that the layers of literary parody and reference become important for themselves. As Thomas tells Telford: ‘You won’t find the evidence you need in a work of the imagination’. But you can find stimulating ideas that bear on the evidence. N has some marvellous ideas, but too much interest in other literary possibilities to give them a chance. Philip Roth’s more modest speculation about an anti-Semitic Second World War America in The Plot Against America (2004) shows how speculation about just one historical alternative – in his novel, the election of Charles Lindbergh rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt as U.S. President – can be enough to create a frighteningly plausible world. Roth, of course, chooses a more domestic and realist focus for his novel. Scott sees too many alternative possibilities, too many fantasies, too many narrative layers, to keep us convinced. - Susan Lever
Back in the late 1960s when drugs and Vietnam were all the go, when Albert Langer fomented revolution and Elijah Moshinsky directed plays, Monash University sported a young poet called John Scott. It was a good period and a good place for poetry: Scott’s fellow Monash poets included Alan Wearne and Laurie Duggan. But the man who looked and sounded like a poet, the one with the Dylan Thomas gift, was Scott.
He won the Victorian premier’s literary award for poetry with St. Clair and for fiction – though it is at some far dark jangled sado-masochistic edge of poetic form – with What I Have Written.
Since then he has written fiction, some of it ordinary. Now he has produced a huge prose epic in ambitious high gloss often poetical prose, and it is like nothing on earth.
N is a novel of the Second World War set in Australia except that the war it reconstitutes and retrieves has only an incidental relationship to the war of history. Reading N is a bit like doing a jigsaw that you think is going to give you a woman of Manet’s and instead yields the dislocations and fetishes of a mature Picasso.
This is a counter-factual World War II and it is also, to complicate matters, a piece of fiction in which the trappings of realism, often under or overdone, are mere means to some end that defies the imagination.
We seem to be in the company of a group of painters, But then plunged into the mystery of a member of parliament on whom democratic government seems to depend who is mysteriously got rid of – by whom and to what end? – and why is his wife playing her elaborate games of flirtation with a poetical prune of an investigator.
Meanwhile, the painters are being dragged to sanatoria, whether to be treated for TB or be exterminated remains a question. One of them ends up in the army, then, in the hands of the Japanese. Oh yes, and the big surprise is that a hubristic madman seizes power, having arrested Curtin and Menzies and co. And he is a looming fascist as well as a loon and he is into the business of collaborating with the Japanese invader.N is a wildly original, deeply odd attempt at large-scale, free-wheeling narrative – and anti-narrative – form by a writer who defies the conventions of traditional exposition and narrative clarity and is forever disappearing down byways of his own invention. So it is impossible to read the narrative slowly for its poetic savour without feeling you are falling into the dark and backwards abysm of time but if you read it on fast forward you get confused about what’s happening to whom when. What’s not in doubt is that we are in the presence of a literary power.
What does have plenty of salt and savour is the detail of the unfolding: Ivan Menzies can play KoKo in The Mikado because the Japs have departed, the black GIs have scars on their bodies from whippings. The sadism of the Japanese camps is a thing of ghastly wonder but the evocation of life in Australian detention is mindless, bludgeoning, awful beyond belief – and all the more so for the complacent, conformist grin that goes along with it.
N is a large format book, beautifully designed in constructivist fashion, its single black consonant on a sea of dark blue. It is a byzantine monstrosity of a book, with no space for conventional readability or a story that’s transparent or clear.
It stands in a tradition that includes Martin Johnston’s 1983 novel Cicada Gambit and it dissipates any easy narrative flow in the all but universal realist mode while presenting like a youthful frailty.
This is a large-scale work in something with a family resemblance to prose that arrests its readership but swoops and staggers under the burden of a formal waywardness, a wilful formlessness that can make the reader gasp as she does with Pale Fire or Gravity’s Rainbow though the overall effect is more suburbanised, lamer and more Australian than either of those parallels would suggest.
N is discernibly a shaggy dog story about the war and the memory of war that also points to the fate of every asylum seeker of the soul. It seems affected by the French new novel of 50 years ago but it also seems to have something of the cracked quality of those old Australian windbags Xavier Herbert and David Ireland.
In any case it is something and no one is likely to forget its interminable nightmare articulation. - Peter Craven
arketed 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. - www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2014/04/30/john-scotts-n/1397829600
I remember that when I finished reading War and Peace, I didn’t really want to read anything else for a while because of the sheer big-ness of Tolstoy. I felt somewhat the same way after finishing John A. Scott’s big 600 page book N. It’s not War and Peace to be sure (although that certainly sums up the content), but both books are large in their scope, long in their pages, and peopled with memorable characters. And for me, I just wanted to luxuriate in their big vision for a while, before turning again to the small-canvas books that seem to fill the shelves today.
N. opens in war-time, amongst a bohemian group of artists and writers who gather in the coffee shops and studios of inner-city Melbourne. There are multiple narrators and at first I found myself wondering how I was going to keep them all straight, having forgotten completely that there was a Dramatis Personae at the front! But the book settles into the stories of four or five main characters who each bring in a constellation of smaller characters. One of these is Missy Cunningham, disillusioned and unhappy wife of Roy Cunningham the Social Realist painter; there is Reginald Thomas, clairvoyant writer and latter-day Tiresias who writes up his visions into radio plays; Albie Henningson, a writer of far-right political persuasion; another is Robin Telford, public servant in the Parliamentary Secretary’s office.
War-time politics are on a knife-edge. The balance of power is held by two independents, and when one of them is found dead in a public toilet-block, Sir Warren Mahony, already a member of Fadden’s War Council, takes up his position as Prime Minister of the Emergency Cabinet. The widow of the murdered independent politicial, Norman Cole, approaches the public servant Robin Telford, asking him to dig deeper into the death of her husband. Britain and the United States withdraw their attention and military support to the northern hemisphere; the AIF returns home but is no match for the Japanese, who quickly spread down from the north. The Mahony government sues for a truce with the Japanese, and becomes a Vichy-like government operating out of a large house at Mount Macedon. Critics of the government, activists and members of the intelligentsia are silenced or disappear completely, and out of the direct sight of the Mahony government, the Japanese inflict cruelties on soldiers and citizens alike.
The book combines real life characters with fictional ones. The writer Frank Clune is there, but his ghost writer, the real-life P. R. ‘Inky’ Stephenson is rendered through the fictional Albie Henningsen. There are real artists combined with fictional ones, and the Social Realist art show that brings the wrath of the Mahony Government to bear against the artists has resonances with the activities of the real-life Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition in Melbourne. Even the whole political scenario of two independents in a war-time cabinet echoes the real-life Arthur Coles (of G.J.Coles fame- and a name very similar to Scott’s fictional Norman Cole) and Alexander Wilson who voted in 1941 to bring down Fadden’s government.
The narrative voices and genres that mark the different characters are playful and well-rendered. Missy Cunningham’s sections evoked for me the writing of M. Barnard Eldershaw and even reminded me a little of Neville Shute’s On the Beach. Robin Telford, the public servant, speaks in careful bureaucratese, while Albie Henningsen is fervent, passionate and driven. The whole thing is a pastiche, and a baggy pastiche at that, but I loved it for its sweep and noisiness.
It is appallingly violent in places, and I recognized situations from Iris Chang’s horrific Rape of Nanking. At times the disappearances and conspiracies stretched credulity, but they shouldn’t in these days of disappeared boats and the ‘you don’t need to know about that’ of our refugee policy. It was no surprise to me at all when Scott breaks out of historical fiction mode at the end of the book to comment on such things and remind us that this ‘what-if’ scenario is not so absolutely far-fetched.
I’m a fan of John Scott, and I’ve read most of his books over the years: the erotic narrative trickiness of What I Have Written; the bleak flatness of The Architect; the carefully rendered setting of Warra Warra. I can’t say that I’ve always felt that I understood the book at the end, and must admit to sometimes being bemused by the digressions and spin-offs. But I don’t know why he’s not numbered up there with the Flanagans and Careys, because, like them, he writes across a number of genres and takes risks. And like them, he keeps me coming back for more. - The Resident Judge of Port Phillip
John A. Scott’s long-awaited novel, his first in over a decade, is set in an imagined, though frighteningly familiar, Australia. It is the early 1940s and Melbourne is a fractious city. A corrupt right-wing government has recently seized a balance of power and the country is at war against a southward-moving Japanese army.
N is both a brilliant political thriller and the telling of two different, but equally affecting, love stories. The alternating narratives – of modern artists, implicated public servants and defective soldiers – spread and intersect like secret underground tunnels, carefully mapped by Scott. Navigating these, it’s impossible to ignore Scott’s contemporary subtext. In this, N compares to the work of Alexis Wright, for its play with genre and strange, folkloric landscapes, and also to Peter Carey, with its mischievous narrative underpinning. Scott writes from a multitude of characters’ perspectives and in changing narrative styles, adopting the techniques of documentary realism through to prose poetry. The novel is richer, and clearer, for these shifts.
N is particularly animated by its surreal moments; for one example, the hallucinations of war artist, Vic Turner, are visceral and unsettling in their force. Though, equally elegant are Scott’s descriptions of the every day – the changing weather, a child playing with his toy soldiers as his mother watches on.
Scott has crafted a book of grand scope and meticulous intricacies, a weighty, significant contribution to the catalogue of Australian literature. Simply put, this novel is a tour de force. The work commands a careful reading – those who ride with the twisting furrows will find that N is nothing short of superb. - Belle Place
John A. Scott chats to David Brooks about N