Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 208 pages; 2009.
It’s been 10 years since Murray Bail’s last novel, the oh-so wonderful Eucalyptus, which is one of my all-time favourite books. I was anxiously awaiting this new one and had it on pre-order from Amazon for what seemed like forever. When it thudded through the mail box late last week, I devoured it hungrily. Unfortunately, I was slightly disappointed by it.
I’m not sure why. The writing is exquisite, with touches of modernism (Patrick White came to mind on more than one occasion), and the characters are wonderful: well drawn, believable and quirky. The narrative, however, is vague, and there were times when I wondered, where is Bail going with this?
The story is told from two intertwining perspectives. The first is largely from the point of view of Erica, a 45-year-old unmarried philosopher from Sydney, who is sent to a sheep station in the NSW outback to appraise the work of another philosopher, Wesley Anthill, who has died and left all his papers in his writing shed. The second is told from Wesley’s point of view, first as a young man, who leaves the farm and moves to Sydney in search of “experience”, before wandering through the UK and Europe, and then returning home to toil away on his life’s work.
It’s made clear from the start that Erica is a fish out of water. She’s city born and bred, and the prospect of going over the Blue Mountains into the outback fills her with dread. To alleviate the boredom, she takes along her good friend, Sophie, a psychoanalyst.
The dynamic, and the unspoken tension, between this pair certainly enlivens the narrative, particularly when they arrive at the sheep station and find their hosts, Wesley’s siblings, Roger and Lindsey, are reclusive country bumpkins not used to talking, much less entertaining two “sophisticated” guests.
There are some funny moments throughout, a kind of laconic humour that brings a smile to the dial, along with some lovely homesick-inducing descriptions of the landscape and interesting turns of phrase, such as this gem:
Also on the table was a bottle of tomato sauce, almost finished, the leftovers clinging to the insides, like the remnants of the British Empire.
Men in the square were happily playing boule in the face of their fast-approaching deaths.
Much of the book is a kind of treatise to philosophy — and posits that the Australian climate and landscape do not generate the kinds of conditions necessary to develop philosophical thought.
Hot barren countries — alive with natural hazards — discourage the formation of long sentences, and encourage instead the laconic manner. The heat and the distances between objects seems to drain the will to add words to what is already there. What exactly can be added? ‘Seeds falling on barren ground’ — where do you think that well-polished saying came from?
And he juxtaposes this with the idea that Sydney may not be a philosopher’s city but it is “the most psychological city in the world” where people go into therapy to talk about themselves.
What is going on here? The skies are blue, forever cloudless — is that it? A great emptiness sending people back to themselves. Now that the city is up and running, no longer a country town, there’s been a transference from the landscape and its old hardships to the self?
A philosophical read
There are some big ideas here, and I suspect anyone who’s studied philosophy (I haven’t) will love it. But I was left wondering whether I had missed anything. Was Wesley’s philosophy anything more than the average Australian youngster who backpacks through Europe and returns home feeling as if they’ve discovered themselves and the world?
The Pages is one of those books that asks more questions than it answers, and I suspect it’s one of those novels that requires a second reading to fully appreciate. I think this quote by the Independent, on the back of my paperback, sums it up perfectly: “This book is as hard and sparse as that landscape, but no less beautiful for that.”