On Richard Flanagan's Fanciful Non-Fiction
Nobody would deny that Richard Flanagan is a passionate writer. His new collection of non-fictional prose is full of fire and commitment, all right. But does he have the talent to convert passion into literature? This is the question about his work that won’t go away. Let's consider a typically cantankerous sentence from the present volume. Responding to critics who argue that Australian novelists should “write more about money”, Flanagan says this: “So much offensive idiocy and prescriptive stupidity has not been heard since the days the lecterns of Eastern Europe grew greasy with the nonsense of cultural commissars insisting on how only social realism adequately described socialist reality.”
Look at what passion does to Flanagan’s prose. His language overheats, but it refuses to get especially inventive or evocative. (By what process might one expect “nonsense” to deposit grease on a lectern?) Flanagan’s unfortunate lack of creative resources (wit, irony, pictorial imagination) means that his strong feelings have nowhere to go, except into the making of a crude overstatement that can only alienate an intelligent reader. To suggest that the plight of the contemporary Australian novelist is in any way comparable to the woes of a Soviet-era writer in Eastern Europe is obscene, as well as absurd. Indeed, the comparison is so inept that Flanagan destroys his own case: he accidentally reminds you that Australian novelists, when you look at their situation historically, don’t really have much to complain about at all. Flanagan has an anti-talent for rhetoric. When he cranks up his prose to convince you of something, he has an uncanny ability to make you sympathise with the opposite view, even if you didn’t before.
This tendency turns out, in the present volume, to be chronic. Flanagan has a habit that is surely a bad one in a non-fiction writer: he keeps failing to check whether what he is saying is true. Here he is kicking off an essay about war entitled “Lest We Forget”:
Lest we forget, we reverentially intone every Anzac Day and yet we forget all the time. We forget that out of the 102,000 Australians who have died in wars since Federation, only 40,000 died during World War II. We forget that all those other wars in which the majority died were not because we were threatened, but because we were involved with empires elsewhere threatening others. We forget that all those Australians who died … did not die for our country but for other countries.
Let's try our best to parse this. Flanagan seems to concede that the 40,000 Australians who died during World War II were fighting a just war. He is not radical enough to contest that point. But what exactly does he think he means, when he makes reference to “all those other wars in which the majority died”? Exactly which wars does he have in mind? As Flanagan surely knows, 61,000 of the 62,000 futile deaths he's talking about occurred during World War I. And how can he possibly believe Australians have “forgotten” that World War I was an imperial conflict, fought a long way from these shores, in which far too many Australians pointlessly died? Has he ever been to an Anzac Day service? Has he noticed that Gallipoli gets more than the odd mention in our national conversation? Remarkably, Flanagan gets through this particular essay without referring to Gallipoli at all. This is a strange omission, and it raises a question that's hard to answer with any confidence. When Flanagan leaves such inconvenient details out of his arguments, is he being deceptive on purpose? Or does he get so worked up, when churning out passages like that one, that he develops the capacity to deceive even himself?
As every sentient Australian knows, the image of the heartless British general sending diggers to a meaningless death is so familiar that it's become something of a national cliché. So how on earth has Flanagan managed to convince himself that this detail of our history has somehow been "forgotten" by everybody except him? And what purpose does this delusional proposition serve? Well, it turns out that Flanagan has raised the subject of Anzac Day because he wants to make a point about our current involvement in Afghanistan. We shouldn't be there, Flanagan passionately believes. And when Flanagan thinks that he’s morally in the right – and he rarely thinks he’s anywhere else – he seems to feel he has a licence to mangle the facts (and the English language) in just about anyway he pleases.
“We forget we asked the Americans to be in Vietnam,” he writes, “and we don’t even know exactly why we are in Afghanistan.” The first half of the sentence is so badly phrased that Flanagan inadvertently seems to suggest that we asked the Americans if they would go to Vietnam. The remainder of the sentence makes sense grammatically, but it's still crucially vague: does Flanagan mean we don’t know why we’re still in Afghanistan, or we don’t know why we went there to begin with?
Flanagan's prose is riddled with little imprecisions like this one. Indeed, being imprecise is fundamental to the way Flanagan operates as a thinker. Alleging that “we don’t even know” why we’re in Afghanistan is a lot easier than engaging with the well-known arguments for our presence there. Those arguments aren’t unassailable, of course: you can make a solid case against them, and plenty of writers have taken on that responsibility. But Flanagan's non-fiction is fundamentally irresponsible, because it keeps pretending that the facts are less thorny than they really are. By pretending that we’re in Afghanistan for no reason worth mentioning, he can vaguely imply, without having to argue the point directly, that we could immediately bring our troops home without exposing Afghan civilians to any nasty consequences. This is almost certainly a fantasy. But Flanagan, whose chief and perhaps sole aim as a writer is to advertise his own compassion, prefers not to bog himself down in awkward realities.
For all his loathing of politicians as a class, Flanagan writes exactly the way politicians talk. His whole intellectual style is founded on a suppression of complexity. He doesn’t use language to assimilate and deal with the world as a whole. He uses it to isolate the portions of reality that upset him, and to obscure or skate over the parts that it doesn’t suit him to talk about. Reducing his opponents’ positions to a caricature, he conveniently lowers the bar for himself. Rational argument becomes unnecessary. Our presence in Afghanistan can be frictionlessly invalidated by a simple reminder that war is an “evil” thing.
Such faux naivety is typical of Flanagan’s posturing approach to world affairs. His views on Australia’s involvement in Iraq would fit easily on a protester’s placard, with room left over for a large cartoon rendering of John Howard’s Mr-Sheen-like head. For Flanagan, Howard simply took his “riding orders” from Washington. The whole thing was about Australia’s “servitude to a new imperium.” Many an anti-war protester believed that too, of course. But that doesn't entitle a serious writer to pretend that things were exactly that simple. As with our involvement in Afghanistan, serious arguments can be made against Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. Nobody is stopping Flanagan from making them. But to make them, you need to move beyond the idea that the whole thing was a puppet show, with George Bush pulling John Howard's strings. You need to acknowledge that the other side had arguments too.
Flanagan doesn’t think much of John Howard’s political opponents either, by the way. Kim Beazley is a “big puffy boy,” a “lost blimp”, leader of a party of “conceited bastards all born to rule.” This is primitive stuff, offered up by the very same writer who piously complains, in another essay, about the “growing coarsening” of our “public rhetoric.” If Flanagan feels that his own frenzied contributions are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, he is mistaken. He wants to restore "empathy" to our political scene, but raining noisy contempt on every politician in the country except Bob Brown is a strange way to go about doing that.
As a novelist, Flanagan has always has always had a liking for the bold imaginative stroke. In The Unknown Terrorist, he delivered the news that Jesus Christ was history’s first suicide bomber. In Wanting, he took two real historical figures – the Tasmanian Governor Sir John Franklin and his adopted Aboriginal daughter Mathinna – and invented a scene in which the former raped the latter, thereby epitomising the theme of white invasion. These are big sweeping metaphors, but big sweeping metaphors can be useful in the field of fiction. Novelists are licensed to be a bit reductive, and draw caricatures, and say things that are not literally accurate, because such techniques can sometimes provide a startling short-cut to the truth.
Whether Flanagan’s fiction is a bit too reductive is a question for another day. The problem, in the current context, is that Flanagan is far too ready to indulge his penchant for fictional overstatement in the non-fiction arena. Writing about reality is a lot more demanding, in some ways, than writing about an invented world. It subjects a writer to stricter rules of evidence, for one thing. The short-cut becomes a less legitimate technique. But Flanagan’s essays are full of sinister and unsubstantiated phrases like this: “In an ever more unfree age, when avenues for the expression of truth are daily closing off all around …” If Flanagan were any other writer, one would brace oneself for a mention of the Internet at this point. After all, you can hardly say something like that without acknowledging the existence of the Web. But Flanagan can. He just moves on. Apparently he just feels we live in an increasingly unfree age. And apparently just feeling that strikes him as sufficient reason for asserting it as a fact. But in non-fiction, it isn’t enough (or shouldn't be enough) just to say what you feel. You need to say what you think, and explain why you think it.
No doubt newspaper and magazine editors commission pieces from Flanagan precisely because he is a novelist. Perhaps they expect him to cut through to the secret heart of things, and deliver seer-like insights that are beyond the ken of the average journalist. But on the evidence of this book, Flanagan sees less than the average journalist, not more. I don’t think he writes better than the average journalist, either. His grip on language is far from sure: he says “decimate” when he means “annihilate”, and “alumni” instead of “alumnus”, and “doyen” instead of “doyenne”. He also has a habit of scrambling the natural word order of spoken English for pseudo-literary effect. “Gathering were the dark clouds of the Cold War,” he writes, as if a cliché can be jolted back to life by just shifting the verb from one place to another. And try unravelling this sentence, with its bizarre and pompous inversions of the laws of natural speech: “This is no nationalistic argument, for good writing, good art are ever anti-national; rising beyond them, opposing fundamentally the nonsense of national pretensions with the mess of life.” You can see what he means, eventually. But working out what a writer is trying to say shouldn’t be such hard work. With Flanagan, the task is so laborious that you feel entitled to a share of his royalties.
“I like books that smell of sweat.” The phrase is Flaubert’s, and Flanagan uses it as one of his epigraphs. Alas, my copy of this book ended up smelling more of my sweat than of Flanagan’s. I don’t doubt that Flanagan was incredibly fired up when he wrote it. Nor would I deny that some of the causes that fire him up are good ones. But anyone can get angry. The really hard part of a writer’s job is to transmute emotion into readable, memorable language. Flanagan’s language is forgettable at the best of times, and at the worst of times it's memorable for the wrong reason: because it turns ugly under pressure. “Our two major parties did not so much play the race card, as back it to the hilt with cracked rhetoric …” Is Flanagan saying that the race card had a hilt, or that the cracked rhetoric did? After a while you stop asking yourself such questions. What's the point, given the clear evidence that Flanagan never bothers to ask them himself? The man cares about a lot of things, but language isn’t one of them.