“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, March 29, 2011

Book Review: Blue Skies

Blue Skies
By Helen Hodgman
Text Publishing

The narrator of Helen Hodgman’s Blue Skies is a young, suburban housewife in Tasmania suffering from unbearable boredom, or as she terms it the ‘numberless days when the clock always said three in the afternoon, no matter what you did to it’. Little relief is provided by her husband, James, one of whose chief attributes, according to the narrator, is that he ‘had been the first man to explain the American electoral system clearly to me’. The only release from this tedium comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when she is able to ditch her infant daughter, Angelica, at her mother-in-law’s house and meet up with one of her two ‘friends’, Jonathan and Ben, with whom she is having an affair.
            But if all of this sounds a little bit melodramatic, the fact of the matter is that Blue Skies is very much a dark and twisted comedy; sure, the book does contain murder, suicide, a variety of sexual acts (mostly adulterous), and much more, but these are always delivered through the narrator's dry, affectless tone, which leaves it up to the reader to find the humour. But at the heart of these jokes is very much a pointed satire aimed at a variety of social and political issues.
            Indeed, this book was originally published in 1976, but has just been reprinted this year by Text Publishing under the idea that Hodgman’s novel is something of a lost classic (which it, indeed, legitimately is). But what’s most impressive about Blue Skies is just how contemporary it feels, since its satirical critiques are aimed at environmental issues, the social inequality of women and the unjust treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. But Hodgman’s treatment of these issues never resorts to simple sloganeering; the narrator’s neighbour attempts to plant English grass in her backyard, for example, but this simple decision gets redescribed in terms that elevate the action to a kind of colonialism: ‘The native grasses rustled and swayed at the edge of this pampered patch. Occasionally it would stake its aboriginal claim to the usurped homeland by launching a seed to fetilise and reclaim a centimetre.’
            And for all of the brutish acts committed by men (or the more subtle action of other women, such as the narrator’s mother-in-law, who seek to maintain patriarchal practices), the narrator isn’t represented as an angel either (to put it mildly). And while the novel could easily be read through the lens of feminism or postcolonial theory, the humour and absurdity of the novel means that it never feels like an ideological exercise; Blue Skies is satire, but not satire that can be reduced to a simple, straightforward message. Later this year, Text will republish Hodgman’s second novel, Jack and Jill, but it’s already clear in Blue Skies that Hodgman is an important, Australian author who deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of readers and writers.

R.I.Y.L. Donald Barthelme's Snow White, Kathy Acker (in her more restrained moments), Feminist Literature with a Wicked Sense of Humour

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters.

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