“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book Review: Leaving Home with Henry

Leaving Home with Henry
By Phillip Edmonds
Press On

At heart, Phillip Edmonds’s new novella, Leaving Home with Henry, is a sort of fictionalised travelogue about driving across Australia, albeit one with a significant twist: Trevor, who has departed from Adelaide in order to escape ‘terrifying domestic moments’ and to find ‘a way to talk about the big picture’, goes to the National Archives in Canberra, only to discover Henry Lawson living among the stacks of books. Soon enough, Henry decides to accompany Trevor, and the two set off in search of the ‘real’ Australia among the many small towns between Canberra and Queensland.
            Edmonds handles this conceit effectively by never questioning the whys and hows of Lawson’s sudden reappearance, instead giving the text over to the magical realism inherent in the premise. But, of course, having Henry along in the car also enables Trevor to reflect on Australian history and how our notions of both Australia and Australian-ness have changed over the last century; part of this notion is implicit in the selection of Lawson, himself, of course, who is both arguably Australia’s most famous writer and yet largely goes unread by most contemporary readers.
            Much of the book is taken up by dialogues between Trevor and Henry as they discuss the contradictions of contemporary Australian life; in the hands of a lesser writer, these interactions could be come off seeming forced and overly analytical, but Edmonds writes them with a wry, laconic touch that is both funny and engaging, as is evidenced when Trevor says to Henry, ‘This trip is your chance to wander innocently around the country and gaze upon the land with piercing eyes and impaired vision.’ Moreover, the inherent comedy of Lawson trying to come terms with the modern world also creates several moments of real humour, as well.
            Ultimately, the book becomes about both characters’ search for what it means to be an Australian in the contemporary world, as is clear late in the novella when Trevor is asked to describe the Australian dream to a tourist from the U.S.: ‘The idea was that working people could live decent lives and that we are generous, good-hearted people who care for one another like mates, and it’s not just a gender thing. We can send ourselves up, and even if serious, we don’t want to walk over each other. But that’s changing. Now the Australian dream is to own a bigger house than any of your neighbours.’ In these and other moments (such as in references to the death of both socialism and unions as legitimate political forces in Australian society), Leaving Home with Henry makes clear its own particular viewpoints and allegiances, but Edmond’s critique of contemporary life always turns back on itself and never devolves into a simple fictionalisation of ideological positions or reportage of political ‘issues’.
            Phillip Edmonds’s Leaving Home with Henry, which is only about 90 pages long, may be a physically small book, but it’s one filled with big and important ideas about contemporary life, politics and the continuing importance of Australian literature. I liked it, and I suspect that Henry Lawson would approve, too.

For more information, visit Press On Publishing.

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