I find it very hard to write about Australia. This is partially a landscape issue. When writing fiction, I don’t open with the sunset. When I stare out over the canyon, my inner ear picks up no ambient string refrains. I will never publish a novel about a prodigal son returning to Mudgee under dubious compunction, only to fall in love with the quirky arborist’s daughter whilst smoking a spliff in a tree house at sunset.
The outback is beautiful but it terrifies me. I was eighteen before I saw it. In Coober Pedy, the sky goes all the way to the ground, which is red and flat except for the gouged mine-pits. The whole scene is Martian and used-up. Time is trapped in the significance of an incident: the machine accident, the weather event, the dust storm that rises up and makes the sky the same red of the ground.
It’s a strange tourist location. People come to see the underground houses, the dusty opal stores. People come because it’s the first place you can stop after 600 kilometres of forbidden desert – the Woomera Prohibited Zone – home to nuclear tests and refugee detention centres. Home to Indigenous communities with the same high instances of cancer that ‘inexplicably’ surfaced in Nevada and New Mexico after the late fifties.
On my first visit I was with two girlfriends in a van, travelling around Australia in a gap between high school and university. We circled the town and decided to pull into a caravan park instead of sleeping in the car outside the pub. We set up next to a single tent, pitched all alone in the corner, no vehicles, nothing. The front entrance to the tent was littered with empty cans of tomatoes and beans. Its occupant turned out to be a paraplegic man, talkative, a bit nutso. He kept ‘spinning yarns’ about how young girls like us will drink free when we get to Darwin, how he knows Jana Wendt, and, if we want, he’d get us on
60 Minutes. Apparently Jana loves stories about young girls out on adventures.
The paraplegic’s disability aroused more curiosity in me than sympathy. How did he get here? Who would drop a paraplegic man off in a caravan park in Coober Pedy, alone with his beans and tomatoes and no way to leave? And why?
During the night the man used his torso to shuffle his unpegged tent around so he could see in through the van window and masturbate. He pulled at his numb cock all night as we slept. In the morning, when we woke, he used his free hand to beckon us to come closer. But we were too close already.
I see his chilling face in Doc, from the 1971 outback horror film Wake in Fright. The have the same grotesque desperation. The same terrible mystique. They engage the same surge of empathy in me: You’ve come to the end of the line. At this point you’ll take what you can get. Wake in Fright, in fact, is the most resonant, most terrifying Australian film I’ve ever seen.
When protagonist John Grant (a snobby city teacher stranded in Broken Hill corollary Bundanyabba after he loses all his cash in a game of two-up) expresses curiosity over how this educated man, Doc, could have come to living in a tin shed in the middle of a harsh and insular outback town, he’s told straight up:
I’m a doctor of medicine. And a tramp by temperament. I’m also an alcoholic. My disease prevented me from practicing in Sydney. But out here it’s scarcely noticeable.
Doc lives off the ‘aggressive hospitality’ of the locals. They keep him in beer and food. In the Yabba, no one asks too many questions. In Coober Pedy, we didn’t ask questions either. Just moved the van to the other side of the park.
Not asking is a survival mechanism for an edge-of-the-map place. Some people are born there, some come out there from a sense of altruism or adventure and some people just end up there when a confluence of circumstance means that it’s easier to survive in some of the hardest territory in the world than in the big cities, with all their infrastructure and intention.
This year, a friend invited us to make an extended stopover in her desert hideaway just outside of Coober Pedy. The dugout is done up in an elaborate Mad Max meets Tank Girl aesthetic. It’s incredible. But even inhabiting a film set doesn’t mask the terror. I can’t ignore the absolute silence. With the sun glaring directly above the red soil, the light is even, right up until it all turns black. I can’t ignore the razor-sharp sorrow of the town, all the smashed windows, no place to get a cheap feed and all the servo pies sold out by three. The nearest place is 500 kilometres either way, and if you get there and say where you just came from, out come the Badlands tales. Claim stakers pushed down shafts and sealed in. Grog running and riots of running out. Not asking is a survival mechanism for an edge-of-the-map place. Some people are born there, some come out there from a sense of altruism or adventure and some people just end up there when a confluence of circumstance means that it’s easier to survive in some of the hardest territory in the world than in the big cities, with all their infrastructure and intention.
The trip was supposed to be a psychedelic homage-de Castañeda but the first night we sleep in the dugout I dream of chase and fright and blurry death, while my sweetheart dreams there are snakes crawling all over us. And then spiders. And then a giant scorpion with dripping fangs and I won’t wake up and he is sure I will die from a scorpion bite. We wake in fright.
‘Are we gonna take acid today?’ I ask tentatively, in the dark.
‘I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘There are open mine shafts and skulls everywhere. We might decide that all we can do is sit in this room and hold each other for eight hours.’
We head to the pub where all the old men are watching Ultimate Fighting Championship with glassy eyes and the whole scene is filled with grunts and thwacks and that’s bloody rights. It’s a fleshed out version of the bar scenes in Wake in Fright. The fluoro light picks out the sweat, the wide eyes and thick grins. The pub: an atmosphere both violent and compelling, grafted on to the desert. Six beers in you begin to feel the mania bubbling up to meet it.
‘When I grow up,’ my sweetheart jokes, ‘I wanna be a local.’
Local is a difficult world in Australia. It stakes a claim. It casts suspicion on movement and puts credence in staying put. It is also defensive. I flashback to the kangaroo massacre scene on the edge of the Bundanyabba bender, the violent rituals that consolidate ‘local’ status in Wake in Fright. Across the bar someone says ‘your round’ and the fight bell rings out from the TV.
Ted Kotcheff, the director of Wake in Fright, is Canadian. Does it take an outsider’s eye to draw out the grotesque and thrilling in the Australian outback milieu for film, or perhaps, is an outsider the only one who might feel totally unapologetic doing so? It seems to me that we feel so guilty about our conflict and fear in/of Australia that we go the opposite way and fall into a bright denial. When a journalist asked Nicolas Roeg – the English director of Walkabout, another 1971 outback film – what he thought of Australia, he replied ‘two stops overexposed’.
It’s probably part of moving towards a post-colonial consciousness, the intense pressure to be ‘connected’ to place in Australia, even when you are an anxiously assimilating outsider, as most of us immigrants are: clustered in the cities, soft edges around a hot centre.
The creative paralysis I suffer when writing Australia is probably an important process to be acknowledged well before overcome. I should show more patience. When writing Australia, the pressure is to represent the blood-red tones through rose-coloured lenses. Romanticise the landscape, the outback, the suburbs. Romanticise the history, the culture. And it is beautiful, Australia, terribly beautiful. But romance works to supplant, not to explore or respond to its object.
At a dinner party on the other side of the world, a Japanese academic – a friend – asked me, ‘but don’t you feel you have some special relationship with country in Australia?’
She said ‘country’ the same way it’s said by lefty arts-workers and cautious anthropologists – an uneasy appropriation. This is pretty country. This is sacred country. This country is stolen.
‘No,’ I said, and then amended, ‘well, maybe somehow.’
It would have been difficult for me to explain the spiritual lack where she is seeking a whole, the outsider feeling where she is seeking story and secret meaning.
She looked at me quizzically.
‘I thought all Australians had some special understanding of the land.’
‘No’, I said. ‘No more than anyone else. But I do think about it sometimes. It’s something like, a problem for me. Not that I want it to go away…’
I let my sentence trail off into my wine. The outback remains, behind us somewhere, always compelling and menacing, always broad and open for interpretation.