By Kent MacCarter
In the preface on page six of Dupain’s Sydney, an art book featuring photographic plates of cityscapes, city dwellers and urban whatnot by acclaimed photographer Max Dupain, there is a photograph of the artist fussing with the aperture on his 4×5 large-format camera perched on a fully extended tripod. You can detect a few beads of sweat charting out perfectionism on his forehead. It’s 1977. The vantage of the photograph – down Pyrmont Bridge into Sydney’s CBD and the shadows cast by the tripod’s legs within it – provides the viewer with a reasonably accurate time of day. It looks to be about 6pm.
The photo was taken by Dupain’s career-spanning assistant, Jill White. Pyrmont Bridge’s southwest stone balustrade flows out the bottom left corner of the plate. The scene encourages one’s eyes to follow the natural movement in the image when – bang! – there they are. Glam sunglasses. But why?
They’re set on the edge of that stone railing as if they’d flown off a charming face in a vrooming convertible and landed precariously there – Neil Armstrong-like, from Earth to moon. Dupain’s nous for urban composition is immaculate, relentless. How did the sunglasses sneak so incongruously in the image?
Reasons of how and why they got there have niggled at me for years. I wanted the reason to be because of a sexy, mid-1970s heatwave that was seducing the whole of Sydney out of doors, out of clothes and into new-found liberties that late afternoon. The brand of heat that co-stars an afternoon with sparkling young things in states of partial undress, larking about in public fountains … personalities, say, from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies fast-forwarded sixty years on, or the cast of old-money Manhattan chickadees who swan and curse their collegiate way through Whit Stillman’s film Metropolitan. The reason had to be something like that.
I contacted White at her studio for answers. Those glam accoutrements were hers. In a mad rush, she had half-consciously taken them off and placed them on the bridge to set up her own camera and capture Dupain in action. There they stayed. She recalls taking the photograph. And she remembers having lost a pair of sunglasses – somewhere, at some point – that warm day. But she never knew how or where. When I contacted her, directing her to the image, she was floored to finally locate them, there in the image, after all those years misplaced in a temporary brainstorm. She had never noticed them there until I pointed them out to her, or so she claimed. Nothing like the tale I’d been greedy to hear, or the one I’d wanted to write in response to those clashing sunglasses and never did.
I begin with this experience because I recently revisited The Summer Exercises and discovered Mobile, both books I feel deserve a closer look and greater exposure. These are stories that so successfully extrapolate their texture, arc, shapes and tone – indeed their entire fiction – from their non-fiction sources that it’s like watching DNA replication occur. Yet the result is not a clone, more like a twin: a poetic text alternate to its source. Both read as literary doppelgangers of their personified wellsprings; a stack of WWII-era police photographs and the American Interstate highway system, respectively.
On a much more modest scale, that’s the type of story I wanted to write of those sunnies and their provenance.
It’s no surprise that Michel Butor dedicated Mobile to his friend, Jackson Pollock. The book curves and shifts abruptly in its progression. Constantly. Ross Gibson’s book develops as a collection of written snapshots, not orderly stacked, but arranged in a pattern that allows its story to happen. Reading The Summer Exercises feels like processing film in a darkroom: you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking at upon first moments of encounter. But I’m not talking about futurism, given that any observance of ‘now’ is the primary inspiration to moments in texts we imagine to follow … but stories that operate because of a tangible object and upon which a writer has teased out re-imaginings, developed layers of nuance and constructed a precise gravity of the story itself.
It is disappointing that Dalkey Archive Press dub Butor’s masterpiece as a ‘travelogue’. UWA Press gamely touts Gibson’s work as a novel of ‘experimental fiction’. One page in and you’ll find that both books work in poetic frames.
Here are three lines from Gibson, then Butor:
A fruitcake in a live oven – thirty minutes past
the right moment. Because of a distraction
he was investigating on the floor
A Chrysler whose radio is blaring “Home Means Nevada” passes a
huge old Ford parked beside the highway – Emigrant, Pearl and Ante-
lope Peaks – When the day breaks in
I do not intend for this to be a review of these books (although I freely admit to enjoying both immensely), but more an examination of what and ‘how’ they are.
The Summer Exercises is the result of Gibson pouring over umpteen photographs held in the NSW Justice & Police Museum’s archives. Images of crime scenes, mug shots, identifications, blurry accidents and candid snaps, all provided Gibson with a piece of text. He wrote then down in fractions, jumbled them into a chaotic salad and sutured them back together to form the final book. From thousands, he chose to include 175 images that spell his story. It’s a Frankenstein of imaginative prowess I think Shelley would approve of.
The front sleeve declares the book ‘Anchored in the realities of 1940s Sydney police investigative procedure … a re-invention of history as it happened.’ Summer Exercises is chaptered across 29 days in which a young chaplain on secondment to a central Sydney police station shadows the actions of officers Machin, Svenson and Gleeson. He keeps a meticulous notebook, recording ‘whispered confessions and low urgings … while roving about. Brevity, his creed.’ He snaps pictures. Overhears conversation. Mulls conjecture. Considers what’s bullshit and what’s not in alibis. Gibson’s creation builds into a high Tetris level of ill-repute; police investigations squaring off and falling into place. Human fallibility and desperation hang over each page as a smog – alluded to and exposed – coats the post-WWII zombification of an exasperated and war-weary Sydney. In Gibson’s re-imagining, you encounter cops, pimps, Guidos, grafters, perverts, Yanks and assorted officers expert in every aforementioned flavour of righteousness or flim-flammery. Not to mention the appearances of the ‘tunnel children’, seasoning this caper as sharp salt rubbed into a society’s guilty conscience. They’re children which ‘eke out a precarious living in servicemen’s dives in order to stay afloat in a black economy sustained by warped passions’ – at least, that’s how the director of the Historic Houses Trust, Peter Watts, puts it in his preface to the book:
She’d do the sex on the ferries. She’d step into cars. But she’d bring loot back with her afterwards. Bring it all back to the drains … Nobody knew who put the baby in her.
Watts is correct: nobody did know. Sydney did have an underground youth culture such as Gibson portrays. In this morass of sin and the pursuit to stunt it, the chaplain weaves in and out of scenes and police visits like a needle pulling together wounds in a cadaver. His summer exercises are sutures.
What makes a detective? Trace it back to boredom?
A taste for your own blood? Some violent aesthetic?
I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself. Bring wine. Get low. Untie your boots and touch ground.
Eagerly, I picked up a copy of Summer Exercises when it was first released. It quickly dawned on me that it took a mammoth set of cojones (of the gender-neutral ilk) for a press to publish this ‘experimental form of storytelling’.
Terri-ann White, director of UWA Press and publisher of Summer Exercises, was ecstatic over the manuscript that came in to her. When asked what drew her to Gibson’s MS, she replied, ‘As a long-time fan of the writings, films and other expression of Ross Gibson, I was thrilled to be able to work with him to bring his first novel to publication. It is that speculative confidence, the hallmark of his artistic expression, that appealed to me most, the way he winches things open to be looked at anew’.
Two things strike me about White’s comment. First, the ‘winching (of) things open’, because winching open what appears sealed and finite – a photograph, its subject(s), intended or accidental – is the gravity of this book. And it feels like illicit sex with truth’s twin sibling. Once the static ‘lids’ of the images are lifted, Gibson deftly aligns the indefatigable hum of objects, people, lies and truth into a progressive if difficult story. It’s a nuclear fission of sorts, unlocking atomic power from seemingly inert material. To so intently study the minutiae of these 175 images that a story as dense as Gibson’s ensues, one that lassos the zeitgeist of the Sydney police force, horses and men shitting in the street, is – enjoy the book or not – quite an accomplishment.
All its parts are glued together with prose, mugged from a seedy taxonomy that keeps you guessing and on your toes throughout. Entire personalities are extrapolated from photographs of smirks, the emptiness of car parks, the disparate pupils in eyes of passers-by filling up a background, or the way a woman smugly cups her breast when nabbed by cops she must oblige with mug-shots. The bare arse of a man. Codgers accumulating in a pub with tiled walls. Never is the arc of The Summer Exercises’ crystalline. Look closely.
Approaching this book like a ‘typical’ novel is folly and spotlights the second point I need to make from White’s comment: that of Gibson’s speculative confidence. This book doesn’t have speculative confidence in spades, it has it in factories … factories that make the playing cards. Gibson’s surety of story doesn’t flinch. While Summer Exercises is by no means a literary game, there are laneways to get lost in and red herring to choke down for lunch. It unfolds in a pace that risks losing the reader, which takes ample bravado in a first novel.
I’ll end with this grizzly and titillating passage:
Outside the stadium – stooping on pavements – young beauties
are accepting lingerie and climbing into snub sedans.
Down on the ground, a newspaper gyrates in air and
separates its leaves till one headline splays upon our
windscreen: LATE NIGHT BRIDGE PLUMMET
Re-reading Summer Exercises got me wondering what tangible sources other authors have used to build a story. Here are a few questions I put to Leah Kaminsky: novelist, poet, editor and practising physician.
KM: Have there been any unusual sources of inspiration for your stories? Tangible objects? Perhaps to an extent that a final story has become a replication of that inspiring device?
LK: Yes! Scalpels are an inspiration.
KM: Oh? Do tell.
LK: Now that I think about it, a lot of my fiction has grown out of medical paraphernalia, in particular tropes like white coats, stethoscopes and even a little piece on a heart I once dissected! The title poem for my poetry collection is ‘Stitching Things Together’, which is derivative from me being able to suture skin. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that my father was a tailor, yet I can’t even sew on a button!
KM (in private to himself): Aha! More sutures.
LK: (I have) poems about heart transplants, orifices, thalassemia … and I am writing a novel about a waiting room. So it does seem a lot of my work is contextualised to my work as a doctor and various objects of the trade.
KM: And do you have any stories that directly reflect an inspiring object or medical procedure?
LK: There is a story that grew out of a lumbar puncture I had to do on a little boy as a junior doctor.
So there you have it. Scalpels. Orifices. Gadgetry and procedure providing a story’s genesis. Now how about an Interstate highway system doing the same?
Dalkey Archive Press, 2004. Originally published by Simon & Schuster, 1963.
In his preface to Mobile, John D’Agata points out that ‘In a 1955 Gallop Poll, 79% of Americans believed that the Soviet Union “unequivocally” wanted to “destroy the world”. 68% of those respondents owned a car.’ This alarming fact regarding the Interstate highway system of America, why it was built and, subsequently, how Mobile came to be the masterpiece it is now considered is important to keep in mind.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the granddaddy of the US Interstate project. In 1954, he pitched to Congress that a grand sum of money be spent building a road network intended to act as an economic stimulus project echoing the successes of the New Deal (the Hoover Dam, etc.) and as a lifebuoy tossed to rural American communities, roping them in to the gravitation pull of urban economies booming at the time.
Couched in those terms, Eisenhower’s proposal was a total failure. Funding for the project evaporated after two years of muddling along through a few miles constructed.
In a classic case of wagging the political dog, Eisenhower repackaged the whole exercise of building a national Interstate system as a strategic military exercise, directly playing off the paranoid McCarthyism of the population. In 1954, the National Defence Highway Act passed both houses of Congress without so much as a hiccough. America needed a network of ‘wartime civilian evacuation routes’. What started as a $175 million ‘good idea’ transmogrified into a $25 billion folderol of military infrastructure. D’Agata’s preface to Mobile is worth the price of the book alone simply to experience another turn inside the outlandish machinations of a government, its propaganda spin-cycles and the knack of turning promising intentions into boondoggles. I won’t try to match it here.
1959. Enter Butor. He’d read about what was going on in America with this project and came over from his native France for a forensic poke about on slick new freeways.
HUNTSVILLE, ARK., the South ( … only)
Two splendid Audubon’s caracaras fighting, one clinging to a branch,
the other in the air, their open beaks thrusting at each other.
HUNTSVILLE, MO., the Middle West
( … only)
ALPINE, the mockingbird state.
Your tears are salty like the sea,
don’t be afraid,
nothing will happen to you
I’m going to give you a little of my blackness
Very anti-On the Road, isn’t it? Refreshingly so. Butor’s Interstate meanderings occurred two years after the publication of Jack Kerouac’s paean to other gadabouts of the time. The sexiness and spontaneity of the era proffered by the Beats doesn’t make the slimmest cameo appearance in Mobile.
Butor plied interstates. Defence tools. Soviet targets. No laudanum. No tantric Yab-Yum. No flasks. What he wrote is frank, angular and decidedly un-Beat. It’s actual, spatial and, at times, monotonous. Mobile is the Interstate system; its fragments a series of glimpses from a car window and built in stages just as the Interstates were. In a later collection of essays, Improvisations on Butor, the author ruminates that ‘one of the points that struck me most during my first stay in the United States was the phenomenon of reduplication’. Butor’s observations appear fleeting on the page – ample breathing room between snippets of observation – but this is a calculated structure.
BENTON, TENNESEE, the South.
The prothonotary warbler, clinging to a cave vine, head and breast bright
yellow, black and white fan-shaped tail – across the southern state line,
BENTON, LOUISIANA, the Deep South.
The parula warbler, perched on a large salmon iris known as the
Louisiana flag – across the northern state line,
With this method, Butor manoeuvres between locations encountered such as Greenville, South Carolina, Greenville, Mississippi and Greenville, Ohio with a dexterity that amplifies his observance of repetition in what America was becoming. In each of the Greenvilles, there’s an identical motel chain with the same cafe, a cloned menu in each. Butor doesn’t forget to include a few winks of charm. In each of those cafes – mentioned on 20+ occasions throughout the book – one can order a unique flavour of ice cream; almond in one, cherry in the next. Blueberry a few kilometres ahead. This conceit, the variation in ice-cream flavours (ergo, colours also Jackson Pollock-esque) harkens the precise satirical tool that Malvina Reynolds used in her classic folk song ‘Little Boxes’ five years later. The song skewers the rampaging development of a new American suburbia and the comfy middle-class attitudes that bred so well in such a Petri dish. ‘A pink one and a green one and a blue one and a yellow one’. Yes, it’s the same song used and misused as opening credits to the television show Weeds.
Also notable is how Butor returns to regional bird species to underline his observations of social classes and to use them as a movement device that points the attention of the reader wherever Butor wants it to go next. And with what appears to be scattershot – but isn’t – Butor includes snippets of motel pamphlets and conversations that splattered his actual route when roving the Interstate system.
But it is clearly the developing Interstate system on which Mobile is moored. Without it, there is no story. It’s both an unjudged exercise – one that’s searing and true – and, paradoxically, an inaccurate reflection of America given that it’s entirely fettered to that new layer of modernity (providing off ramps of observation from its new vantage) sitting in amongst all the extant histories that blend to make America. However, Butor’s Mobile is decidedly not a perfidious act. He wryly blends excerpts of historical records and Native American recounts into the mix … in parallel with glib marketing brochures for roadside attractions that mock those histories:
“Freedomland scouts scoured the country for herds of live buffalo, wild mustangs, mountain burros, trained mules and pinto ponies which visitors will see in action at Freedomland.”
I was riveted by Mobile’s energy and ‘soundscape’. How did it come to pass that Dalkey Archives Press was able to put out such a monumental piece of writing? I asked Jeremy Davies, chief editor at Dalkey Archives, exactly that.
Once again, I was tripped up by the story I’d hoped I might hear. Davies got back to me, saying, ‘I’m afraid my replies aren’t going to be all that edifying. We’d already done one original Butor (novel) in the ’90s, so we would have been looking, periodically, for opportunities to add more. I imagine it was nothing more exciting than the discovery that the rights to Mobile were available from Simon & Schuster who debuted these translations in the ’60s, and that the book fit into our schedule.’ Ah, the wonderful honest truth that lurks! As Davies went on to say, ‘Publishing can be a terribly practical business; when we want to do a book, there’s often no more critical a conversation on our end than, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get the rights to X?” The answer can be boiled down to: we like Butor.’
So it goes. Glam sunglasses, speculative confidence, scalpels or a series of cities in America all named Richmond. The extrapolations taken from each have been made and are yours to take.
Kent MacCarter is a writer and resident in Melbourne, where he lives with his wife, son and two cats. His poetry and a smattering of non-fiction has appeared in anthologies, journals and newspapers internationally in print and online. He is currently involved on the board of SPUNC: The Small Press Network and is also an active member in Melbourne PEN.