For the last two decades, Anthony Macris has been conducting an ambitious intellectual project on two fronts. On the one hand, he has been undertaking a nuanced study of the effects of global capitalism on daily life in the developed world. On the other hand, he has been exploring, in a highly adventurous way, the possibilities of the novel as a way of limning and responding critically to those effects. To date, this project has produced two brilliant, challenging novels – Capital Volume1 (CV1), first published by Allen & Unwin in 1997 and reissued by University of Western Australia Press in 2013, and Great Western Highway (GWH), also published by UWAP in 2012 – with a third on the way. In CV1, Macris intersperses an obsessively observed account of several crowded moments in a London Tube station with memoir-like reflections on life in Australia between the ’60s and ’80s. In GWH, he asks whether love can be sustained in the same historical soil that produces Thatcherism and the televisual spectacle of the Gulf War.
Though wit and a certain black sense of humour are, in both books, in abundant supply, a deeply unsettling mood prevails throughout. As painted by Macris, the world shaped by capitalism in its neoliberal moment, far from delivering the widespread freedom and prosperity its champions have promised, is one in which life seems increasingly impossible. On CV1’sinitial publication, it was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and Macris recognised as a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist. More recently, in 2012, he was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for When Horse Became Saw (WHBS), 'a powerful, skilfully layered memoir' – to quote the judges’ comments – of the period following his son’s diagnosis with severe autism. He has been published widely as a critic and scholar, and currently holds a position as Associate Professor in creative writing at UTS. In this interview, I speak with Macris about his development as a writer; about the background to the Capital project and some of the challenges that have confronted it during its long life; and about his sense of what literature can do today.
Jason Childs: In the Author’s Note to GWH, you write that the Capital novels ‘pose some very basic questions, but of a kind that have no simple answers’ – namely: ‘What happens to the human need for belonging in a world that is committed to the permanent revolution of market innovation? What happens to the most fundamental relationships between people when they are asked to build their lives in a vortex? What is it like to live and love in the time of contemporary capitalism?’ I’m interested to know how the architecture of the project – which includes a projected three books – emerged from or around these questions. How did you first conceive of it? Was it going from the start to be such a large-scale operation?
Anthony Macris: I’m a child of the market in the most direct sense. I grew up in a shop. Just about literally. My Greek parents had a series of fish and chip shops in Brisbane during the ’60s and ’70s. The setup was always the same. The shop and house were in the same building. The shop-front gave on to a main road, and a doorway separated the house from the shop proper. We sold stuff, the money went into the till, and that was the money we lived off. The way the world worked, in a total sense, was all very simple to me. If customers didn’t come into the shop, we didn’t make any money. And if we didn’t make any money, we would starve. I grew up in constant terror of customers not coming. Fortunately they did; our meagre enterprise kind of limped along. For a variety of reasons, not least my father’s gambling, and his eccentric attitude to business (he was a socialist, if I can pin it down to that), I grew up in virtual poverty. This, during one of Australia’s greatest booms. So I associate the market with these kinds of things, and it’s for these reasons I suppose that the market has figured as one of the dominant themes of my life. Its injustice, its indifference, its power to make or break you. It was something I always wanted to escape from. CV1 opens with a boy walking to school. He’s walking away from the shop, from the market, to the state, a supposedly more rational space. GWH opens with a young man leaving a bank foyer to meet up with a woman he might or might not settle down with: he walks down Parramatta Road, one of the busiest roads in Australia, flanked by all manner of shops for kilometre after kilometre. So, both novels have opening images that depict a central figure trying to escape from market forces, in one instance to a supposedly more rational social space, in the other to the personal intimacy of love.
As I was developing as a writer in my twenties I messed around with various ideas and forms, but it slowly became clear to me what my dominant theme was, and that it would take the form of a novel. Also, I always knew I wanted to work on something large scale, and for that you need a large-scale theme. So I embarked upon writing a series of novels that would somehow embody the great market transformation that began in last quarter of the twentieth century.
I started writing CV1 in the late ’80s when I was living in London. I think I chose London to kick off with because it was a place I wasn’t native to, and it’s that old story of noticing things you wouldn’t normally because of that moment of estrangement. What really struck me there was the Tube system. It was this great clanking mechanical beast with one foot in the industrial era, but another in the postmodern. It was a network, constantly flowing with people either going to work, consuming, or otherwise pursuing their lives. There it all was, production, consumption, consumptive production, productive consumption. And it was layered over with media and image culture. So the Tube environment seemed to be a good test site for the study of a certain moment in capitalism. I also liked it because it is such an overwhelmingly material environment where so many things intersect. One of my concerns has always been this notion of the embodiment of material processes in literature. This is pretty much unattainable, as you’re dealing with linguistic signifiers that can only represent: novels are largely made up of words. But it’s a paradox I can’t stop myself from exploring. And you usually get interesting results from attempting the impossible.
GWH further develops some of these themes. It examines the way a generation handles all-important transitional moments in their lives. The main characters are Nick and Penny, two thirty-something Sydney-siders who are in an on-again, off-again relationship. They’re both university-educated, interested in the arts, culture, travel, and both doing casual part-time jobs because they’re not that career oriented. But they’re starting to see how vulnerable they are: the city and job market seem to be eating them alive, and they feel adrift. It’s the mid ’90s, and the casualisation of the labour market is in full swing. They go from part-time contract to part-time contract, so their lives are unstable in every aspect. They’re a kind of test-case generation. It was as if the powers that be said to themselves, how far can we push market forces into every corner of human existence? What effect will it have? Will people push back?
JC: Do you think of the books as autobiographical?
AM: Yes and no. There’s no doubt they’re based on my life experiences. But they’re not attempts to render an accurate picture of a period in my life for posterity (I’m not sure that would be terribly interesting for anyone!). While capital is the dominant theme in the books, this doesn’t mean it’s the only question the books pose. Capital also serves as an entry point into asking: What is it to be a self? What is the nature of selfhood? How is a self made, constructed? What does it mean for a self to belong to someone, to something? The novel as a form is uniquely placed to address the question of what it is to be a self, as it deals very effectively with subjective experience. In doing this, however, I didn’t want the books to take the form of a heroic journey into interiority, that well-worn path already trodden by modernist literature. Even though I do draw heavily on modernism, in some ways I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to take some of my subjective experiences and treat them as something shaped by social forces, as mediated by a set of social forces, mainly the market and to some degree the state and family. So yes, I grew up in Brisbane; yes, I lived in London in the late ’80s; yes, I went through a somewhat emotionally messy period before I settled down and had a family. But I’m not interested in these events as something to be recorded because they’re intrinsic to me. As events, they’re departure points to build on, embryonic situations and states to shape and mould into novels.
JC: Why was it important to you to produce something large, something epic?
AM: I’ve always been attracted to works of scale. Things that contain whole worlds, that are complex and have layers. It probably all started when I bought Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road when I was twelve or so, and I haven’t looked back since! But seriously, I do love works of scale. Joyce’s Ulysses. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. David Lean’s films, particularly Lawrence of Arabia. And Kubrick. All of Kubrick. I wish Kubrick had lived to be 200 years old so he could have made more films! Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Anselm Kiefer’s High Priestess. Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart novels. Marx’s Capital is an epic, an epic of social justice. You open the door and step inside these works, and you expect to be transformed, and you suffer this delicious fear that you’ll never come out the same again, that you’ll never come out at all. And they all seem to be based on a central conceit that somehow promises to explain the whole world, or that presents some central truth about the whole world. Of course they never quite live up to their promise: it’s not possible. It’s all in the failed attempt. I also love the way they’re often flawed, the way they sometimes contain moments of utter awfulness that show that these kinds of enterprises just can’t be sustained. Now, I love small-scale works too, those works that are like perfect jewels. But I always worry they suffer from good-little-schoolboy syndrome. You know: I want to be Mr Perfect, no blot on my copybook. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of crash and burn.
JC: One reason for the long period between the first two instalments of Capital is to be found in WHBS, which describes events that took place in the interlude. As recently as 2011, you expressed doubts that, having set Capital aside, you could see the project through. You even described its concerns as ‘somewhat narrow’. How did you find your way back into it?
AM: Well, there are a few things in that question that I’ll have to unpack one at a time. I might start with this notion of narrowness. The problem with thinking too much about the market and capitalism is that you can start seeing the whole of human existence as a product of it. Now, there’s a very simple argument that counters this: capitalism is dependent on human society, but human society is not dependent on capitalism. There have been, and indeed are, other ways to live. There’s no doubt that capitalism has become a global dominant, but this doesn’t mean it is a universal of human experience. It is a faux-universal at best. Yet it’s been implemented in our lives on a near-ubiquitous basis. And I must admit capitalism doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. People still refer somewhat optimistically to ‘late capitalism’, in the spirit of Ernst Mandel, with all the connotations of senescence this implies. In fact in my lifetime we seem to have witnessed a renaissance. I suppose the tragedy of it all is that we live under the rein of a false universal, a social construct that claims to enact a totality, but can’t accommodate the full range of human experience. So, a capitalist subjectivity is always a kind of stunted, misshapen subjectivity, a failure of human potential.
Now, on the subject of my son. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that his regression into severe autism changed me as much as any single event could. It was a strange and horrifying experience. It was as if the hand of some capricious god had struck a terrible blow and was trying to destroy me, my partner, but above all my son. Up until the point of his diagnosis I had been a certain kind of person with a certain set of beliefs, a certain way of doing things. All that changed very quickly and soon there wasn’t much I didn’t question about myself or the world. I was blank slate for a while. Calvino’s non-existent knight comes to mind. I had to still function – my son’s condition presented a myriad of challenges – so I became a shell that functioned according to pure social form. It was a Cartesian moment of self-doubt imposed from without. I’ve been reconstructing myself ever since. I’m not sure where I am right now. I do know the experience has broadened me somewhat. But these things also diminish you. It’s all very complicated. In practical terms, it meant I had to take on concerns I never had to think about before. For example, I had to think about intellectual disability, psychology, and particularly human development, in ways I never had to before. I had to think about how I was going to help support this person whose needs were simply overwhelming, who would need massive ongoing support if he were to have any chance of living a rewarding life. It was a very odd time for my family. It was as if year zero had been declared, and we all had to remake ourselves.
Anyway, I was at the four-fifths point of finishing GWH when all this happened, and I found I couldn’t go on with it. I did not have the mental or physical resources to pursue it. When circumstances did permit me to start writing again a few years later, there was another book in my head, WHBS, which describes the first five years of my son’s life and our struggle to provide him with appropriate therapy. The funny thing is, when it did come time to finish GWH, it happened very quickly. A matter of a few months. My head cleared, and I just got on with it. I found I’d been thinking about it anyway, somewhere in the background.
JC: In an essay recently published in the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Etherington draws a comparison between your project and Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities). His claim is, I think, a complex one. He’s comparing the two not only in terms of the time they took to be composed and published, and their considerable scope and ambition, but also in terms of the way the former arguably interferes with the latter: ‘The time and dexterity of craft required to represent the complexity of urban life,’ Etherington writes, ‘is the opposite of the temporality of commodity production that sustains it.’ This kind of writing, he suggests, therefore ‘risks anachronism’. What do you make of this comparison?
AM: As I said before, the first two Capital novels are built to some degree on a fairly simple premise, or perhaps artistic decision is a better term. I wanted to take a period of time I had recently lived through, and hold it up to scrutiny from a variety or perspectives. CV1 is largely set in the late ’80s, although it jumps around in time a bit. In fact, the Tube sections cover barely a couple of hours. The Brisbane sections go as far back as the ’60s. GWH is set in the mid ’90s. In GWH in particular, the attempt is to see the present as someone would from the future. What was life like in the ’90s? Now, these things take a while to write, and a while to get published, and it can all take even longer when life events take over, as they did with GWH, which was delayed by nearly a decade. Also, given that one of my concerns is how market forces manifest in everyday life, this can often mean looking at how technology is used. Unfortunately technology is moving so fast that something like a ’90s answering machine has already been replaced by all manner of mobile devices and message banks, so that kind of stuff can look dated. But I do think that this sort of response is superficial. I’ve always loved books that include the minutiae of the everyday: Flaubert and Zola are cases in point. There’s so much detail about everyday life in the work of both these writers. Zola is a real delight. His Rougon-Macquart novels are often set in a particular milieu: Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) in one of the first large Parisian department stores (it was modelled on le Bon Marché), La Bête Humaine in the railways, Germinal is set in the mines. What could be more ‘dated’ than these settings? But there’s just so much interesting material there about how people live. Also, I’m always trying to identify the political in the everyday. There’s a scene in GWH where some retrenched TCF (Textile, Clothing and Footwear) workers confront a job access terminal, or a self-service computer, where they’re meant to be able to find new employment. Now, these computers were very new at the time. This scene was meant to evoke something like the separator scene from Eisenstein’s The Old and the New, or a scene from Bertolucci’s 1900 where a peasant questions a technological advance. So the technology per se isn’t as important as what it says about the society at the time.
Whether or not a novel has a piece of ‘dated’ technology in it is one level of ‘anachronism’. There’s another level I think that needs discussing, and that has to do with literary form. With the Capital novels, I see myself as working in the tradition of the avant-garde novel that challenges form, and that is trying to escape anachronism. That includes, by the way, trying to escape anachronistic form in avant-gardism itself (and unfortunately there’s also a lot of that about). So, the Capital novels are an ongoing attempt to find a suitable formal language to embody the transformation in society and human relations that have been occurring in the last twenty-five years. For example, I found the overall structure of the realist novel somewhat lacking in its ability to do this (although I do borrow some techniques from realism). While I build on some standard modernist techniques – stream of consciousness, for example – I do think I’ve tried to put a different spin on them. The Margaret Thatcher soliloquy is a case in point. This is a kind of joke. Joyce’s Molly Bloom soliloquy is all about exploring the depths of the mind, the hidden recesses of thought and desire. In my soliloquy, there is no interiority. Thatcher is nothing but the external processes of the market, media, and policy mechanisms she has internalised.
JC: In his famous manifesto For a New Novel, Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the great champions of the kind of avant-garde literature you’re describing, denounces the belief that a literary work should contain a message, argue a thesis, or be otherwise the result, to use the much-debated Sartrean term, of ‘commitment’. What’s been your attitude towards these categories, where the Capital novels are concerned?
AM: I think in terms of literary history Robbe-Grillet is responding, and over-reacting, to Sartre’s total dominance at the time. Sartre’s work is steeped in the political, while Robbe-Grillet became the most famous exponent of the last major wave of experimentation in the French novel, the nouveau roman, which is not explicitly political, at least not in the terms of littérature engagée. I think the easiest way I can respond is by asking, why can’t you do both? Why can’t you engage with the political, and still experiment with novelistic form? One of the major problems with political fiction is didacticism and tendentiousness. But aren’t these the same negative qualities you find in any sophisticated thought? I think an artistic work can engage with political questions, can even take sides, as long as there is a critical moment that shows a spirit of openness. Let’s take the Margaret Thatcher soliloquy again, where I make a case for the political right. I entered into the research for this with a completely open mind: I spent over a year reading her memoirs, biographies, Tory material. I did this because I wanted to escape the sort of simple-minded leftism that never really tries to enter into right-wing thought, never really tries to understand it. Now I don’t want to say I went through some right-wing conversion: far from it. But as I worked through the material I did come across a number of things that challenged my beliefs. I wanted to preserve this unease in the book, to make it an uncomfortable experience for the reader. The same goes for the Gulf War chapter. We all enjoy the benefits of American global protection to some degree. The price we pay is high: we agree to play our part in perpetuating an economic and social system that is inequitable and unjust. But who else would we seek to be our global masters in a hostile world? These are fraught questions, and they don’t have simple answers.
JC: A key structuring principle at work in the Capital novels is something you call, in your critical work and in the afterwordtoGWH, the ‘Generative mise en abyme’ (Gmea): a pattern through which the texts come to ‘formally embody’ the ‘extreme generativity of market processes’. It would seem, however, that this is just one of many layers of repetition at work in the novels. In CV1, certain rhythms and syntactic patterns come to be repeated countless times. Across both books, particular textual forms are rehearsed again and again: the advertising tag-line, the film synopsis. People repeat themselves, repeat one another. They watch – in fact, they want to watch – movies and TV shows they’ve already seen. And then there are recurrent references: to Lucozade and David Bowie for instance. This is to mention just a handful of examples. What made repetition so central to the thinking and writing of these works?
AM: I’ve been waiting years for someone to ask me a question about David Bowie! When I was sketching out the books, I knew I wanted to include a popular-culture icon of some sort. It had to be someone whose career spanned decades. Bowie’s cultural production centres on the three-minute popular song, with its standard structure of verse/chorus/middle eight – then builds a whole image/sonic empire based on it. Also, he’s a good example of a certain type of process of commodification that is central to our times: this notion of value-adding what is the same base commodity with some kind of ‘innovation’. Bowie’s longevity is partially attributable to his changes of image: same base commodity, but value-added in different ways. The glam-rock of Starman, the plastic soul of Young Americans, the disco of Let’s Dance, and the retro art pop of his latest stuff. This has always been done I suppose, but in his case it became a very streamlined business model, and it paved the way for the careers of figures like Madonna and Lady Gaga.
This process also speaks to your question of why I use repetition, or at least one reason why I use it. An essential part of capitalist image culture is the repetition of product and brand statements with different degrees of variation, in different contexts, and across different platforms. As Adorno and Horkheimer said in ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, anyone who doubts the power of monotony is a fool.
In GWH I invoke the song ‘Heroes’in the context of its use as the signature song for a Microsoft ad in the later ’90s. (‘Heroes’ was first a hit in the mid ’70s, and has popped up in varying incarnations since, including at the 2012 London Olympics.) It intrigued me how this song, essentially a very soppy ballad decked out in Eno-esque electronic gladrags, is recapitalised over and over as it becomes further entrenched in our cultural memory. This is just part of a chain of Bowie images. There aren’t that many of them throughout the Capital novels, but they do recur at strategic points – I wanted a novelistic form that could capture these types of phenomena. Now, I didn’t want to just describe this process in a novel: I wanted to enact it at a formal level. So that’s why you have these recurrent commodities and repetitions.
This example also speaks to the notion of the Gmea. The body of work of a major singer or star isn’t something static, something inert. Rather, it’s a living, profit-yielding organism distributed across the media field, as both wholes and miniatures. There’s no beginning or end any more, just this free-floating set of signifiers that can pop up anywhere, in any form, driven by the commercial cycle. Contrast this with the traditional literary trope of the mise en abyme, where frame and miniature are discrete and static: think of Hamlet’s play within a play. With the Gmea, this hierarchy dissolves: signifiers become generative, they become commodities that surge through the networks that interface with our consciousness. Here’s a small example of what I mean. I heard one of Bowie’s songs in the supermarket the other day. It was a funny experience. I was subconsciously humming along to it for a few seconds, no doubt experiencing the mild pleasurable high that goes with enjoying a song you know. The perfect state of mind for what marketers call the ‘buying mood’.
Just a few comments to do with the term ‘embodiment’. One of my main aesthetic interests, and this is to some degree political as well, is this notion of the ontological dimension of signification or representation: the ontology of signifiers. I’m using ‘signifier’ here in the strict structuralist meaning of the term: the material embodiment of the sign, the physical manifestation of the sign. I’ve always seen signs more as signifiers: material things in themselves. The Derridean turn of the ’80s, which emphasised signs as having meanings that were ultimately indeterminate, never really interested me that much. There seemed to be this endless concentration on the idea that meaning was impossible to achieve, and I think it led to a kind of critical paralysis. I’ve always been more attracted to the corporeality of signs, their status as concrete things. This might be because my first artistic endeavour (a failed one) was painting. I went to art school in Brisbane before I went on to major in Philosophy and French at the University of Sydney, so I have always seen the process of making art as a process of making a physical object, be it out of paint, paper, ink, or words on a page. If this tips me over into a crude empiricism, I’m reasonably happy to be there. The upside of this approach is that you can start to analyse how the material dimension of signification has been very concretely harnessed by the market. That is to say, you can start to analyse signifiers as commodities, things that are produced and consumed, that are bought and sold, that are ideologically charged, that circulate throughout markets and participate in market processes in particular ways.
Again, this is what I’ve been trying to do for the novel: find a conceptual/aesthetic form for complex material processes. The books are largely concerned with the flow of image capital and image commodities: advertisements, movies, TV programs, shop front signs, songs, be they in physical or digital formats. I was interested in how we live in this image culture, in this regime of signs, this perverse mirror of our experience that has been harnessed by market forces. I was also interested in how narrative itself has also been harnessed to market forces. The most obvious way is the Hollywood narrative formula with its three-act structure. In GWH’s Lateline chapter, my characters Nick and Penny watch The River Wild on TV. It’s a very ordinary thriller starring Meryl Streep. They watch it on free-to-air, so it’s constantly interrupted by ads. Now, you’ve got a number of levels of embedding here: the narrative of GWH itself (will Nick and Penny get together?); the narrative of The River Wild; the micro-narrative of the advertisements that are embedded in the narrative; and finally another movie, The Fifth Element, that Nick and Penny surf over to during the ad breaks. So what I’m interested in here is flattening out these concurrent narrative enunciations onto a single plane, into single continuum. Nick and Penny are representations on the same plane as a Twinings teabag, Meryl Streep, the animated merino sheep in the RAMS mortgage commercial or, in the next chapter, Margaret Thatcher, or in the next chapter, Gulf War One.
JC: If we can go back a moment, I’m fascinated to learn that you studied as a painter. Can you talk about some of the painters whose work has interested or influenced you? And are there, to your mind, any painterly analogues for what you’re trying to accomplish in the Capital novels?
AM: When I was seventeen or so I got it into my head that I wanted to be a painter. That fizzled out in a few years when I realised that writing was more my vocation. But that period was important for me, because I never lost my interest in visual aesthetics. In fact, I think my aesthetic sensibility has been shaped by visual arts as much as by literature. One big influence was Francis Bacon. What you get with Bacon is an emphasis on sensation and nervous system. In his interviews with David Sylvester he talks about making marks that react directly on the nervous system. He rails against what he calls dead, illustrative paint. This always intrigued me, and it’s a quality that I’ve always wanted to impart to my use of words, particularly in the parts of the Capital novels that deal with the monumental settings like the London Tube system or Parramatta Road. How could I render these spaces in ways that retained the immediacy of sensation? But more than this, my question was, how can I relate sensation not only to the human nervous system, but to the material/social forces that bring them into being, that animate them, that intersect with the human nervous system? Two writers come to mind who explore this: Claude Simon and Don DeLillo. I’ve written extensively about Simon in other places, so I might just mention DeLillo. It’s well known that he states as his influences jazz, abstract expressionism and film. You can already see the predominance of sensation there. The opening of Mao II sums up his approach: ‘Here they come, marching into American sunlight.’ It’s a very simple sentence, yet full of movement, sensation. It’s direct and fresh and animated. It’s not just about inert description, where a bit background is sketched in to serve the main action. The sentence is a tableau in itself. So, in the Capital novels, you get a fair bit of what can be called description in traditional literary language, but which I think of the narration of perception, the refraction of lived environments and experiences through the nervous system via language.
JC: A further question about the object world of the novels. In contrast to the people who live in amongst them – people who are increasingly immobilised, disoriented, rendered speechless by their surroundings, and estranged from themselves by the apparent impossibility of making any meaningful inscription on the world – there are repeated suggestions that inanimate objects and manufactured environments are, or seem to be, coming to life; that – often to people’s discomfort or even horror – the boundaries between the human and the non-human are leaking. This strikes me as a very rich and complex point of intersection for many of the book’s themes – and furthermore as an idea with great force in the context of contemporary debates around economics and ecology. I wonder whether you’d agree and if you could offer some thoughts on this point.
AM: Yes, for sure, there seems to be a greater ‘mediatedness’ of things, and this has always interested me. The world we live in is just so layered: the natural, the human, the mechanical, the electrical, the electro-mechanical, the electronic, the digital, the increasingly complex intersection of the subjective and the ‘objective’ world, the way it’s becoming increasingly recursive. And there’s no doubt that the digital revolution has brought this mediatedness to new levels of complexity.
Back in the ’80s and the early ’90s, when Baudrillard’s notion of simulacrum was in vogue, we got stuck on this notion of the ‘virtual’ riding roughshod over the ‘real’. I think now we have this bizarre and compelling implosion of categories, the creation of this endlessly extended membrane that is both virtual and real, and that is traversed, animated, by the movement of capital. We live in strange days indeed. And it was this strangeness I wanted to capture, these odd mirrorings and recursions. When Nick and Penny sit watching TV on the sofa in the evening, for example, they’re a nodal point for all manner of forces. And many of these forces are coercive in their own way, even though they dressed up otherwise. They have a laugh over the digital merino sheep that offers them a home loan in the RAMS commercial, but it’s a nervous laughter, because deep down they know that it’s the banks who will own their lives if they choose to undergo what is considered a rite of passage, even a sign of maturity: getting a mortgage. But is it? Isn’t it just another instance of subjugating your life to capital?
JC: I think it’s fair to say thatthese novels were conceived – and Volume One, at least, written – during a period in which it was uniquely difficult to question the virtues of capitalism in any direct way. The enduring slogan of this era was probably Francis Fukuyama’s famous claim that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, history had ended; that, with the globalisation of liberal capitalism, mankind had reached its developmental telos. The events and ongoing aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, however, along with the resulting emergence of the Occupy movement, among others, seem to have made many people newly receptive to the idea that a number of the most serious problems we currently face – social problems, ecological problems – are exacerbated, if not outright caused, by capitalism; that such triumphalist sentiments as Fukuyama expressed have been a dreadful mistake. What’s your reading of this situation? Do you feel that we have entered, or are entering, a new moment of thinking about these issues? That we are managing, or at least struggling, to see ourselves in historical context once again?
AM: I remember Fukuyama’s claims when they were around in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it always astonished me that they could be taken seriously. The very thought that humanity has reached some end-point of development is just crazy. And how convenient for a right-wing ideologue that this end-point just happened to be liberal capitalism! In hindsight I think we can see that someone like Fukuyama was only ever an apologist for the rise of neo-conservatism, or what Chomsky calls the neoliberal assault on the population. And far from being some kind of natural occurrence, it’s fairly clear that Fukuyama’s vision of ‘liberal democracy’ was something the US was determined to impose in any way it could, on its own population by attacks on unions and welfare, and internationally by unilateralism and the use of military force typical of the Reagan and Bush years. It’s all about remodelling the world along market lines, and it’s all very transparent. It’s the same old story; you legitimate hegemony by claiming it’s a universal. And Australia wasn’t spared: in fact we pursued these kinds of reforms as vigorously as anyone. In the Capital novels, in particular GWH, I look at two aspects of this. There’s the domestic aspect. Earlier on in this interview I mentioned the issue of casualisation. My characters Nick and Penny are well and truly caught up in this. They have jobs that essentially lead nowhere, and that don’t given them enough economic prosperity to participate in the bounty that surrounds them, that is perpetually dangled in front of them. And then there’s the international, or global, aspect. There’s a long chapter where Nick, unemployed in London, passes the time watching Gulf War One on the television. As he watches he reflects on the implications of what is the first fully-fledged ‘digital’ war, and how it contributes to the ‘new world order’, one that’s intent on reshaping the world for market forces wherever and however it can.
Now, there’s a sense in which the Occupy Movement comes directly out of issues like these. But this kind of protest is happening in a very oppressive environment, in a kind of organisational and moral context that is very difficult to operate in. Over the last few decades, the neoliberal assault against the population has been, at least in the Anglo-American sphere, pretty successful: the culture it has produced has ‘matured’, so to speak. So I’m not quite sure how something as diffuse as Occupy can come to grips with providing effective change when faced with an ideology that has become institutionally monolithic and also all-pervasive at the level of consciousness. I don’t want to be defeatist, but I do think the question needs to be raised.
I’d like to make a final point to do with political power and how it can be represented in literature. In TheArt of the Novel, Milan Kundera talks about a notion of power that takes the form of a labyrinth hidden from view: it’s a Kafkaesque view of the world (and one perhaps best suited to the Soviet-style state he grew up in). I think things have changed since then. Now I know there is still a huge amount hidden from us, as whistleblowers like Assange and Snowden have shown. But, broadly speaking, things are much better than they were. These days, things aren’t so much hidden from view: democracy has delivered us a certain amount of transparency and we broadly know what’s going on. But despite increased transparency, repressive power is still exercised. And to some extent we all, in fact, enact it. It’s important we acknowledge we do this, in order for us to take responsibility for it. So, let’s extend this notion somewhat for descriptive purposes. We no longer live in a world where we are simply the objects of a nefarious hidden power. We live in a world of greater transparency, where we have been coerced into enacting the power that represses us. The labyrinth has been revealed, but this hasn’t made much difference, because we’ve now internalised the norms of the market. Perhaps this has been the main project of the last twenty-five years or so: a behavioural and ideological one. One of things I’ve tried to depict in my Capital novels is this oddly transparent world where it is becoming harder to know whether we’re acting in bad faith or in good conscience, self-interest or the common good. My characters Nick and Penny are people who suffer the inner struggle of having to assimilate current market dogma into the very core of their beings. They don’t cope particularly well with it. I think it affects Penny more: she has a strong sense of social justice, and having to live the ensuing contradictions really destabilises her sense of who she is, of who she can be.
JC: It’s clear from our discussion that many of the Capital novels’ most important literary and theoretical touchstones are to be found overseas – in European modernism and post-modernism, in continental philosophy – and that, as an intellectual project, in spite of its several Australian settings, it has an emphatically global scope. Where does it fit in our national literary landscape?
AM: All I can do as a writer or artist is to pursue the things that interest me, and you’ve mentioned some of my core interests pretty well. I’m not capable of doing otherwise: there’s no motivation for me to do things just so I ‘fit in’. But it is an interesting notion, this notion of fitting in as a writer. This usually means fitting into some kind of national discourse, or writing yourself into one. There are definitely rewards if you do so – being a writer who speaks for the nation, etcetera. I don’t have a problem with any of that, but it just doesn’t seem to be what I’ve ended up doing. Also, I don’t know how I could ever have done it from my particular subject position. Perhaps I’m just more interested in this notion of the Western subject anyway. I don’t think it’s in any way a superior pursuit: it’s just a different project. Also, I do hope I’m not being ‘global’ for its own sake. One of my concerns is the interconnectedness of things. For example, Australia joined a coalition of military forces to fight a war in the Persian Gulf. This was in part to make sure the world oil supply remained stable for Western interests. You fill up your car at a bowser on Parramatta Road, but where does the petrol come from? I wanted to make sure those sorts of connections were represented. We’ve been global citizens for a while now, at least since the Age of Empire. I think it’s just become more pronounced.
But it can be hard for books like the Capital series to find a home in the current literary climate. One of the things that has always interested me as a novelist is being part of a project that constantly tries to redefine what literariness is. The novel is a constantly evolving form. In my view, at least part of what happens in it should be committed to constant reinvention. Now, this isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. But we do need people to do it, or the form will ossify. And I think that’s a problem for literary activity today. As economies of scale take hold of the publishing industry, as well as higher profit expectations, you get a tendency to sameness. And this sameness creeps in at all levels. For example, there used be a bit of give in middle-market novels, a greater tolerance for a variety of approaches, a greater willingness to accommodate variation in form and theme. That’s coming under increasing pressure, and there’s a tendency now to what I would call a literary ersatz, a kind of artificial literariness masquerading as the literary, that is marketed as the literary, and which people are consuming as literature, but which often doesn’t have many literary qualities, or often the ones that are present are clichéd or tired. So, as this rather narrow middle market (with fewer books more aggressively marketed) comes to define the literary itself, anything at the edges is pushed out of view: it drops off a precipice into a void. And that really worries me. It does make it hard for writers such as myself, who are committed to long-term, large-scale experimental works, to get some traction. But I don’t think the situation is entirely hopeless. There are usually small publishers around willing to take risks on more challenging work. And new technologies and social media environments have made it easier for them to do so. In recent years I’ve been wonderfully supported by my publisher at UWAP, who published GWH and republished CV1. They’ll also be publishing a volume of my shorter fiction, titled Inexperience, in a year or so.
JC: I’ll certainly look forward to that. To finish, could you tell me a little about the third Capital book? How does it carry the project forward?
AM: I have started on the third part of Capital, but it’s slow going: I’m not a particularly fast worker. How will it push the project forward? By going backwards – back to childhood. This part will be set in the shop where I grew up in Brisbane. I opened the door on this, so to speak, with a chapter from the period in CV1, but didn’t pursue it as I knew that one day it would be a book in its own right. It will be a book about family as much as it is about market forces. I’m also looking into the social history of the times: the Whitlam era, the rise of women’s, Aboriginal, migrant rights, etcetera. I think there might be more of the commercial image culture I spoke about earlier. I want to explore what it means to have been in a sense shaped by the particular regime of signs that abounded in the ’70s and probably beyond.
I’ll give a brief example. I remember hearing John Lennon/Yoko Ono’s ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ in the early ’70s. I would have been around eleven or twelve. This was one of his agitprop singles: a great example of the personal as political. Stylistically, it’s weird stuff: Phil Spector meets a kind of communist party self-criticism. I remember being incredibly distressed by it. It spoke to the way women were treated in the world I was growing up in, in my own family and in the larger society, and clearly it was all wrong. I didn’t expect to hear something so confronting in a context that for me was for me largely escapist, and it made me feel sick with guilt. (In 2001, when I interviewed Yoko Ono for a feature in The Bulletin, I told her this. She seemed pretty pleased!) So, with the rise of post-war media culture, we’ve been conducting this experiment on ourselves, a vast ontological and social experiment. We have no real idea of what long-term effects it’s had. What have we done to human subjects by bombarding them with these kinds of signs, in various ways, for that last sixty years? So I think I’ll look at things like that, but in the context of childhood. At the moment I seem to be wasting a lot of time on YouTube clips of my favourite songs as a boy and a teenager. As indicated at times throughout this interview, glam rock looms large!