Sacred Cows is a new series dedicated to overrated cultural artefacts and the more deserving ones we’ve lost sight of in their shadows. Each installment will pose an argument for one or the other, re-evaluating the worth of a text and the praise it has (or hasn’t) received.
This week, David Latham makes the case against Tim Winton’s 1991 novel Cloudstreet.
There’s nothing quite so virtuous in Australian literature as the naifs and curmudgeons who spring from provincial Australia. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet — a book centred around the tribulations of two struggling Australian families who co-habit a decrepit house in suburban Perth from 1943-1963 — is a cultural extension of Australia’s institutional love affair with the world outside of Australian cities.
The Australian city — a sus inner-suburban ring of decay and debauchery, once occupied by a combative white and ethnic working-class, and now by “craft beer wankers” — is the0 place where big moral pollution hovers, threatening to contaminate the suburbs beyond its borders.
The characters on whom Winton’s novel claustrophobically focuses are the Pickles, who emanate from the bucolic fishing town of Geraldton, and the Lambs, who arrive in Cloud Street after failing to make a fist of farming. And, while they’re brought into a suburb in Perth, Cloudstreet is no urban novel. The city to the extent it functions in the novel does so as a sort of rapacious backdrop, a sink of doom and diminished values. It’s a place Mark Latham watches suspiciously through his culture binoculars.
Cloudstreet is a communitarian project that focuses on the redemptive power of home-spun homilies, truisms and eternal forgiveness. It’s a paean to the truncated world of timeless institutions; the family, the Bible, the ALP, and cuckolding. It’s also a book of preposterous mythological wetness, and its story potential is boxed in by a checklist of thematic touchstones, archetypes and sugary colloquialisms.
And this is still where we find ourselves in Australian literature today, all too often looking past the mirror of contemporary urban society and through some rustic window, searching for some wistful core that is meant to represent the “real” Australian experience. A cursory glance at prescribed novels for VCE or ESL courses is replete with Australia’s geographic obsession for life outside the city, despite the fact Australia is one of the most urbanised nations on earth.
The motivations are partly bureaucratic, political, and commercial, but clearly there’s a cultural obsession at play. American literature explores the American soul through the salesman — the great loser floating down the American river — we continue to explore, incomprehensibly, the Australian psyche through the bushman.
A book demands drama and Winton delivers it — an eating disorder, a dissolute mother, a gambling father, a tragic accident — but Winton’s thematic peccadilloes mean he doesn’t seem to recognise that the cloistered world of these families is the problem. Stop me if I’m wrong but Cloud Street is the wellspring of every character’s misery in this book. It’s a macabre house of hokey horrors.
But my major issue with the novel is its fey language, its bowdlerised representation of Australian culture, its grasping allusions and overwrought metaphors. Water serves as a constant reference point in the book which is fitting because Cloudstreet is dripping with wet language. Characters are constantly chiacking, skylarking, saying “whacko”, “bonzer”, “flamin”, “cripes”, “buggerizin”, “dinkum” and so on. When we first meet Fish, he’s apparently well thought of about town for lighting paper bags with turds inside: the neighbours — presumably with shit on their heels — proclaim “it’s just Fish Lamb and his fun”. Two pages later Fish has his accident and we’re supposed to be tits deep in pathos. Unfortunately, a lot of the emotional developments don’t feel earned but chalked out.
I’ll admit this is a bit of a user-end problem; I’m a booster for contemporary, urbane and urban-based stories, like those of Christos Tsiolkas, but live in a world where kitsch nostalgia casts a long shadow over the Australian cultural landscape. Where’s the healthy morbidity? Stranded in the moral pestholes of the city no doubt.