Michelle de Kretser’s Unsettled Australia

Michelle de Kretser’s Unsettled Australia


Michelle de Kretser’s fiction of migration and globalization.


In life, as in Michelle de Kretser’s novels, Australians are always traveling. If they’re not in New York or London or flooding the perimeter of Asia, you’ll find them in the bush or on the reef. It’s a settler colony whose inhabitants remain a bit unsettled. At the same time, prospective migrants from across the Indian and Pacific oceans line up at embassies or are shunted to brutal island detention facilities, where they await the dim possibility of a new Australian life. Successive governments have expressed only vicious disdain for the migrants accumulating offshore: Don’t you know you’re supposed to want to leave?

Michelle de Kretser, once an editor of the Lonely Planet travel guides, has spent the last decades writing novels about globalization from two perspectives: that of the person who can afford to travel and that of the person who is forced to move. In her latest book, Scary Monsters, she deepens this divide and makes it literal, with the two halves of her narrative printed inversely so that, depending on how you hold the book, either the tourist section or the migrant section comes first. (The flipped sides are otherwise identical in format, down to the acknowledgments section at the end.)

De Kretser’s first two novels were a historical romance and a murder mystery, and though her subsequent work has been more straightforwardly literary, she never lost her taste for genre or her interest in large social questions. In Scary Monsters, she takes a new approach to reconciling her literary ambitions with her fondness for experimentation: Its formal gimmick adds a thriller-inflected air of dread and uncertainty to what is otherwise an unrelenting satire of the cosmopolitan upper-middle classes, both the naively navel-gazing past generations and the spineless ones to come.

The tourist section of Scary Monsters takes place about five decades earlier than the migrant one. Its narrator is Lili, a 22-year-old brown-skinned Australian en route to Oxford for graduate school in the early 1980s. She stops off in France for a year to teach and to form herself into a “Bold, Intelligent Woman” in the mold of Simone de Beauvoir, the subject of her undergraduate thesis. Failing this, she’ll accept becoming a “Sexy Modern Woman,” like Debbie Harry, or like Minna, a rich London artist with whom Lili quickly falls into an obsessive and competitive friendship. Important steps toward her goal include living in Montpellier’s historic center, though she can barely afford it; going to see Roberto Rossellini films at night and walking back from the cinema alone; vacationing in Sardinia in the hopes of meeting John Berger’s mistress; and carrying on affairs with an Italian socialist and Nick, who was, until very recently, Minna’s boyfriend.

Dangers abound, from the gendarmes checking the passports of brown-skinned people in the town square, to Lili’s creepy neighbor, to the possibility of Mitterrand losing that year’s election. Lili has to remind herself often of de Beauvoir’s assurance that “there were certain things, such as accidents, serious illnesses or rape, which simply could not happen” to such a “Bold, Intelligent Woman,” though she finds herself rounding corners with growing dread.

The reader, initially invited to join Lili in dismissing her fears as unfeminist and paranoid, grows more uncertain as violence begins to appear everywhere: North Africans continue to be harassed, Louis Althusser kills his wife, and an immigrant from Mali, known to Lili and Minna as “The Most Beautiful Woman in France,” is brutally murdered by an unknown killer. But Lili is determined to uncover the Beauvoirian heroine inside her, and so she spends her portion of the book forcing it out over her fears, protected by her friends, her false self-assurance, and the first-person narration, whose tone makes something truly terrible happening to her seem unlikely.

Lili and Nick walk through the cemetery where Paul Valéry is buried; “with death close all around,” Lili thinks, “my body felt arrogantly alive.” Nick attempts to recite a Valéry poem, and Lili startles him by filling in the missing word. Lili has studied the poets and philosophers of France in order to find herself “in possession of le centre historique.” Her struggle is to convince herself that not yet having fully attained this knowledge of self and society is her only real problem, and that there is no connection between the world she aspires to and the world that menaces her. Lili’s attempts to discover herself are themselves dwarfed by the larger processes that shape our world; no matter how far she travels, no matter how much she asserts her privileges or tries to live a parallel life, she can’t shake her connection to the people who have come to France not out of self-indulgence but out of necessity.

It would be impossible for Lyle, the narrator of the migrant section, which is set in the near future, to reveal himself gradually. Early on, we learn he has brought his family from an unnamed and troubled country to the law-abiding suburbs of Melbourne, where he observes the native-born Australians around him with the single-minded goal of becoming unremarkably, indistinguishably one of them.

Under pressure from his young son to get a dog, Lyle learns that a neighbor is about to put down an inconvenient canine and, with an immigrant’s hatred of waste, adopts the aging creature. (Though at first he doesn’t realize that the dog is meant to be euthanized; he hears the phrase “being sent to the farm” and puzzles it over with his wife, Chanel, that night.) The dog, named Alan, is used to being left to his own devices in the yard during the day while everyone is out, a practice referred to by Lyle’s neighbor as “Set and Forget.” Around the same time that they adopt Alan, Lyle’s elderly mother comes to live with the family too:

Then Ivy joined our household. Ivy is my mother, and she had Alan inside all the time. I tried to explain about Set and Forget. The news was on, and a government hatespokesperson was telling us why it was necessary to detain asylum-seeking queue-jumpers on an offshore island forever. Ivy said, “I suppose that’s called Set and Forget, too.”

Ivy’s sympathy for abandoned dogs and “queue-jumpers” soon becomes a liability for her son’s family as they try to mimic the callousness of their new compatriots, who scramble to distance themselves from anybody who bears a whiff of foreign or rural origins and who renovate and re-renovate their bathrooms as they listen to audiobooks like 127 Top-Secret, Must-Have, Clinically Proven, Executive-Strength, WINNING!!!! Tips for Growing Your Unethics. From these early pages, it is already inevitable that Lyle and Chanel (names they chose upon immigrating) will, by the end of their story, become the kind of Australians who get rid of their dogs without a second thought. This mindless cruelty is an informal requirement for assimilation and eventual citizenship. Ruthless ambition and optimization are important national virtues as well: Chanel becomes an ardent fitness enthusiast in order to appear promotable to the board of the financial corporation where she works, excising any suggestion of maternity (and its connotations of care and generosity) from her figure. Lyle isn’t as attuned to the minute details of being Australian as Chanel is, but he’s happy to follow her lead, rejecting inherited furniture from his motherland and keeping his head down at work, where he does his boss’s job for him as the white man plays hooky.

The decision they end up making is worse than putting down a dog: Ivy herself becomes inconvenient, and Lyle finds himself pressing her into a new voluntary euthanasia program so that he and Chanel can afford to move to a more prosperous neighborhood. Lyle may not know at the beginning of his narrative that he’s capable of such behavior, but that’s what survival in his adopted country demands, and he knew that much as soon as he landed. Lyle can draw connections between his circumstances and his feelings, but he never allows himself an explanation; looking inward would mean looking backward, and he’s focused on the future.

Lyle’s section is best read first (though I didn’t). His Australia, an accelerated version of our own trajectory where Islam is outlawed, people play Whack-A-Mullah, and Glossier still exists, is different from the one Lili left—though how much can it have changed, really, in the two generations between them? How long can an immigrant hold out hope that his adopted homeland will be any better than the one he left? And knowing what we do about the suffering of the future and the present, how can we take seriously one young person’s wanderlust and nostalgia for a bolder and more intellectual past?

There’s nothing easier to mock than a tourist (especially an Australian tourist), and de Kretser’s novels delight in skewering these jet-setters. But she takes the impulse to travel seriously and doesn’t dismiss it as a less generous writer might, as mere nostalgia for colonial largesse, an old-world desire to retreat into a way of life in which certain hierarchies remain in place and certain services might still be provided. Nor are her migrant characters reduced to pitiful circumstances. Her subject is the way that people move through different parts of the world, whether they arrived via the front of a plane or via the bottom of a leaky ship. Everyone’s gaze reveals something about themselves and the world in front of them.

De Kretser’s previous book, her only work of nonfiction, was a pocket-size collection of writings on the novelist Shirley Hazzard, a fellow itinerant Australian and a major inspiration for de Kretser. Hazzard, who died in 2016, spent her life moving between continents, first as a diplomat’s daughter; then, for about a decade, as an employee of the United Nations; and finally as a writer, having succeeded at achieving the aristocratic cosmopolitanism of many of her characters. According to de Kretser, Hazzard’s “deep subject” is the narrative consequences of lingering history, such as the scars of World War II or the memory of a dominating older sibling, “oxygenating” her precise prose and providing the structure of her masterpiece, Transit of Venus, which describes the lives of two Australian sisters living abroad. De Kretser has entangled herself with Hazzard the way her characters entangle themselves with one another; she embeds little references to Hazzard and adopts her narrative strategies—parallel narratives, deferred climaxes, pilgrimages to Europe where interpersonal drama can unfold in ancient settings—for a new set of historical questions.

Decades after her teenage departure from Sydney, Hazzard remained preoccupied with her nation of birth. Her Australian characters, facing mild ridicule and benign condescension abroad, take advantage of being ignored and look their northern counterparts straight in the eye. She identifies “a clear perception unmingled with suspiciousness” as a distinctively Australian trait, though the way of seeing she describes strikes me as similar to that of the nonwhite elite (and perhaps the few proles who achieve the luxury of unsuspicion), who swarm to London to turn incisive eyes on English society. But it’s not exactly the same, for as V.S. Naipaul puts it, “To be a colonial”—we can assume he means “visibly colonial”—“is to be a little ridiculous and unlikely…. [B]etween the colonial and what one might call the metropolitan there always exists a muted mutual distrust.”

Like many of her characters, de Kretser is a Sri Lankan Burgher, descended primarily from European (in her case, Dutch) settlers. Burghers are overrepresented among the island’s upper crust and constitute almost all of Sri Lanka’s most famous artists: Michael Ondaatje, George Keyt, Lionel Wendt, Geoffrey Bawa. Hazzard refers to these creole populations, in their various iterations all over the Asian continent, as “Eurasians.” At home, they are instantly understandable as local elites; abroad, they are odd and unplaceable. Their European morals have been shaken loose by strange weather and Technicolor flora; their culture is frozen in the period of the ancestor who left; they are sure of their equality and resentful that it goes unnoticed among people they think of as their racial peers—in other words, being Eurasian is another way to be Australian, to see antipodally.

De Kretser’s characters, more Australian than their Australian neighbors, often resemble Naipaul’s creations as much as Hazzard’s. They are ethnically illegible, sometimes even to themselves. Referring to his own experience of travel, Naipaul wrote that “to be an Indian or East Indian from the West Indies is to be a perpetual surprise to people outside the region.” In Europe, Lili feels more like a disappointment as she introduces herself to a Sardinian: “Wonder flitted over his face and was succeeded by dismay. For the moment it lasted the look said, as crudely as a neon sign, Not a Real Australian.” Which is to say, not entirely white.

Lyle and Chanel try to exploit their illegibility, as a rule offering only Thai food to their houseguests. “Every year someone says, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you had Thai heritage,’ and we have to explain: ‘We’re real Aussies—we love all ethnic food. Our favorite just happens to be Thai.’ Naturally, we never, ever cook food from our homeland for other people…. Where would it get us? Into a mural that celebrates multiculturalism—flat, colorful figures to be marveled at, assessed, and never mistaken for the human race.” Lili too insists on her Australian identity, refusing to tell other people, or the reader, where her family is originally from. Aboriginal people and Sri Lankan Veddas appear in de Kretser’s work, but not at length. Everyone in her books, from Sydney art snobs to Sinhalese refugees, is endlessly fascinated with the national character of Australians, but this character is understood as belonging to European and Asian settlers who moved to Australia. As one character in her novel The Life to Come writes to her son as he prepares to move to Melbourne:

Australians are hardworking and very successful. They are suspicious of their success and resent it. They are winners who prefer to see themselves as victims. Their national hero, Ned Kelly, was a violent criminal—they take this as proof of their egalitarianism. They worship money, of course.

This description rings more or less true for most of de Krester’s Australian characters, though they may win us over as we read; her protagonists emerge from the interaction between this caustic summary and the fondness generated by minute observation. Perhaps de Kretser steers clear of Aboriginal characters because inclusion might draw them undeservedly into her affectionate scorn. Or perhaps she holds them at wary distance because there is no space for the indigene in her diagram of the itinerant life: What would she make of people for whom migration was beyond memory?

In her effort to write an Australian literature that might accommodate the many strata of Australian society, de Kretser may stay close to the characters she knows best, but she has started experimenting with the structure of her novels. Starting early in her career, she rejected the use of a single narrator, and many of her novels have dyadic narration, like that of Scary Monsters.

De Kretser’s fractured perspectives follow paths that almost always refuse to conjoin in a satisfying climax; her protagonists often enter each other’s orbits without knowing it and move away again without registering each other’s gravity. Her plots resist the centralizing forces that are also the impulse toward the metropole, away from the ends of the world. For all her ambivalence about being Australian, she retains a mistrust of the way Europeans tell stories about themselves, as the node around which plot and history revolve.

This fractured focus doesn’t always serve her purpose well. In previous books, de Kretser would flip perspectives back and forth between narrators even as her tone remained constant, which often left the reader struggling to balance the urgency of one character’s asylum application against the equal intensity afforded to another’s failed sexual encounter. “Literature lives in sentences”: This is de Kretser’s mantra. But sometimes her attention to detail and revelation, no matter how technically impressive or aesthetically satisfying, overwhelms the structure of her stories. Nothing is left to simple observation; everything passes through her interpreter’s lens—and as exhilarating as that can be, at times it loses steam. The distances she is otherwise careful to maintain between her characters collapse under her exacting, all-encompassing prose.

In the totally severed halves of Scary Monsters, de Kretser has found a format, and a style, that suits her purpose. The contrast between the lives of her characters, divided by time as well as place and circumstance, are clearer, and their similarities—in the limits on their ambition and their ability to connect to those around them—are made more plain as well. The uncertainty and unease every reader feels at the outset of a new book never leaves as we grow familiar with these worlds but only comes into sharper focus as the disruptions and dislocations accumulate.

Scary Monsters is not de Kretser’s most enjoyable novel—the brutish, cynical jokes in Lyle’s section don’t pass the time as well as her usual elegant narratives do—but it is the most secure in its voice and, despite its severed sections, the most whole. Lyle’s section half answers questions unasked in Lili’s and offers none of its own; it is a closed door, trapping us in a worse world.

Lyle’s daughter, Mel, leaves Australia for Chicago, where she studies architecture and uploads makeup tutorials, expanding the reach of her parents’ assimilationist ambitions to a new continent. (As Lyle says, “Wanting to be American is authentically Australian.”) His son, Sydney, goes underground as part of a radical environmental movement, sending only occasional letters to his family; although his activities are outlawed, Lyle and Chanel nervously reassure themselves that “Sydney’s dream of building a new world is thoroughly Australian.” The two halves of the novel trace the end of Lili’s and Ivy’s generation and the ascent of Mel’s and Sydney’s, as the value of bourgeois introspection gradually fades in comparison to the comforts of aesthetic experimentation or the necessity of direct political action. Lyle and Chanel’s generation is one of intolerable stasis, of digging in their heels, and the corrosive effects of this stubbornness don’t take long to emerge.

No home is safe in Scary Monsters—not the Australia Lili left, which will descend into Lyle’s hellscape within a generation or two; not the land that Lyle came from; not France and its roving gendarmerie or even Lili’s little apartment in Montpellier, perched at the top of the stairs just two flights above her creepy neighbor; and certainly not Lyle’s house, where first Alan the dog and then Ivy find themselves being disposed of when they become obsolete. Perhaps the only road to security is restlessness, in long walks around the neighborhood or last-minute trips. Don’t stay in the same place for too long, or you’ll end up needing to leave; and don’t commit to leaving, because you never know the kind of place you’ll land in.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy