When a novel begins with a tale of the world’s origins, readers can expect an expansive tale.
When that origins tale shakes convention by the tail, readers can expect the kind of storytelling that sets aside the ordinary and places the extraordinary centre stage.
Carpentaria begins with a serpent.
“The serpent travelled over the marine plains, over the salt flats, through the salt dunes, past the mangrove forests and crawled inland. Then it went back to the sea. And it came out at another spot along the coastline and crawled inland and back again.”
This is no ordinary serpent.
And it’s certainly not the fickle creature of the story in Genesis.
It is a powerful, creative, and enduring being.
“When it finished creating the many rivers in its wake, it created one last river, no larger or smaller than the others, a river which offers no apologies for its discontent with people who do not know it. This is where the giant serpent continues to live deep down under the ground in a vast network of limestone aquifers.”
The serpent lives below, even still.
And given that the world is created in just a couple of pages, readers understand that the chronology of this story might be a little hard to grasp, the scale of it so broad that it is hard to grasp.
“On the scale of things, their history was just a half-flick of the switch of truth – simply a memory no greater than two life spans.”
Still, there are stories to be found, even in such a half-flick, in such a fleeting memory.
“Stories, stories, the truth became so blurred, except the owl with big eyes saw everything in the night: all sorts of people were visiting each other, whenever they got half the chance.”
And there are people in these tales, visiting and otherwise.
“Yet Will realised there was no point blaming an old man whose vision of the place was ancient. He knew his country in its stories, its histories, its scared places better than the stranger now singing a love song to it. His time stretched over the millennia.”
Some of the language is like a love song and the imagery is beautiful; indeed, at times, they seem to eclipse the storytelling, or perhaps simply shifts the emphasis away from the plot that many readers are accustomed to sussing out first.
Think of this: “Will sighed loudly in the space of the damp, feathered air left by the birds.”
Perhaps that space, the way that it feels, is more important than the reason that Will sighs.
Consider: “On the rooftop, sea birds were packed so tightly under the heavy canopy of dark clouds, it gave the appearance of a giant white flower full of red beaked seeds.The old wooden verandah had collapsed in the winds and now hung like a shirt collar around the building.”
Maybe it is more meaningful to contemplate the image than to spend too much time trying to analyze what made the verandah collapse.
And yet there is plot to wrestle with in Alexis Wright’s novel.
Sometimes the conflict is difficult to follow. “He was an old hand on people who spoke in veiled threats. He could count them all on his fingers and toes….” (which is all well and good for the old hands, but many readers will be left on the other side of that veil).
“Who knows these things anymore when people are living in such a complex world, and people do not talk, do not negotiate a fair deal, do not live by the rules, and will do anything to get what they want?”
Tensions in the town of Desperance are difficult to comprehend for readers looking into this world. There are ancient deceptions and ancient grudges. The elders and the newcomers cross paths and double-cross paths to get what they want.
“Just as Angel’s house exuded lust, Norm Phantom’s evoked terrible fearings of loathing from the great minds, who, like the black cockatoos in flight overhead, only saw it from a distance. People who never came to visit. It made your heart jump.”
(The characters’ names are fantastic: Angel, Norm Phantom, Will — though at first it seems ordinary, Big Mozzie Fishman, Elias, Girlie, and Truthful.)
Alexis Wright’s style can make readers hearts jump, but it can also act as a soporific; there are many scenes which feel like fairy tales, in which men disappear into the mud and ghosts walk on water, but others feel extended and hypnotic.
“One time, Norm told the old people he had a dream about the room. He told them that every house had a spirit, and in his house, the spirit’s brain lived in the fishroom. The few who heard Norm talk about his theory said it was too far-fetched, but Norm argued that once the spirit consumed the original room, it became the likeness of the room itself. In fact, it was a complete replica of the original room. His story was too strange even for the old people….”
The serpent resurfaces throughout Alexis Wright’s work. To the point where readers wonder whether the world in the novel’s pages isn’t simply a complete replica of the world below that was carved by the snake’s path in Carpentaria’s early pages.
A convoy of cars creates a “long snake of red dust in its wake”. A road has metamorphosed ”itself into a long glistening snake river of muddy water”.
Will sees the atmosphere as a living snake: “Its body stretched from horizon to horizon, covering each point of a compass, and encasing them all.” Truthful has “snake eyes”.
A blaze is “roaring like a fiery serpent, looking over to us with wild eyes, pursing, looking around, as if deciding what to do next”.
“You could hear the ground groaning, splitting its epidermis into channels of deep cuts all across the ground. It looked like a fisherman’s net, except it was red brown, and it trapped whatever was down below from breaking through to the surface.”
And, elsewhere, the natural world is groaning and splitting. (As the story develops, the conflict is embodied more concretely between the land’s original inhabitants and the mining company.)
“Will knew how the tides worked simply by looking at the movement of a tree, or where the moon crossed the sky, the light of day, or the appearance of the sea. He carried the tide in his body.”
And there are those who speak in veiled threats and do not negotiate fair deals.
And there are those who read of these struggles in novels like Carpentaria.
Alexis Wright’s novel is a challenging work indeed. But, as readers turn its pages, its momentum swells.
It is, like the cyclone, unstoppable. It wriggles beneath the reader’s skin and insists upon being read.
“As the cyclone moved on it gathered more and more strength from following along the flat surface of the river so it never died out like it should have, once it hit the high country. ”
When good storytelling hits the high country, it makes you want to re-read.