Andrew McGahan is one of Australia’s most respected – and diverse – writers. Each of his novels is very different from the last (with the obvious exception of 1988, the prequel to his first novel, Praise). His works include ‘grunge’ novels Praise and 1988; the political crime novel Last Drinks, set in post-Fitzgerald Inquiry Queensland; political satire Underground; and the Miles Franklin Award-winning meditation on land, belonging and possession, The White Earth. Now, he enters the realm of science-based fantasy in Wonders of a Godless World. A somewhat dazzled Jo Case spoke to him for Readings on the eve of its release.
Wonders of a Godless World is heavily reminiscent of myth or fairytale: its population of archetypes, the element of parable, the magic realist or fantastical element. What drew you to using this form? Was it your intention to create a kind of contemporary fable?
Actually, my intention at the very beginning was just to find some way to indulge my schoolboy fascination for unusual natural disasters. Originally, I was trying to come up with a story that involved no human characters at all, instead using only the forces of nature interacting in a kind of wordless planetary drama. I couldn’t make that idea work, but then the orphan and the foreigner emerged. The orphan – a girl freakishly in tune with the planet and its processes, but so out of tune with humanity that she can’t talk or even remember her own name. And the foreigner - a man utterly out of tune with the planet and doomed time and time again to die in natural disasters, and yet whose own outrage always brings him back to life. From there, all the weird and interesting stuff about Earth that I originally wanted to explore could be played out in the relationship between these two.
But having allowed humans into the picture, I was still keen to keep them at a distance. Hence no one is allowed a name or any normal dialogue or even, when it comes to the five or six peripheral characters, much individual personality. So yes, because of that the story takes on an otherworldly or mythic or fairytale tone, and I was happy to go along with it, but it was more of a side-effect than a central purpose.
Your narrator, ‘the orphan’, sees the world in a stark, visceral way. Because she has only a basic understanding of how her social universe is constructed due to her mental limitations, hers is almost an anthropologist’s view. She’s an outsider constantly having to interpret how things work and what’s happening. As a writer, what were the advantages (and challenges) of working with this kind of narrator?
It was strangely refreshing. We take so much for granted - any primary-school kid, for instance, knows that the world is round and that it spins in space etc. It’s such a given fact that it’s rather boring. But to have a character who has been deprived of even the most basic knowledge, but who then gets to soar into space and discover firsthand that the world is round and that it’s spinning, and to share in her utter wonder at that, well, as a writer, it reawakens your own wonder too.
Of course, it becomes more complex when the orphan is trying to decipher human motivations or her own sexuality etc, but still, the freshness and openness of her perspective was quite a reviving thing for me throughout.
A number of characters in this book suffer delusions that are also coping mechanisms. When their delusions are revealed as such, they aren’t cured – they self-destruct. Is there a place for benign delusion? Do you think we all see the version of the world we can cope with?
Oh yes, I’m assuming that most of our lives are lived under benign delusions. But in a story like this, where various archetypal views of the world are battling it out in a madhouse death struggle, no one is going to have a happy ending. I suppose there’s an echo there of the fact that when a benign delusion comes to rule over a society and repress non-believers, then it’s not benign any more.
Although there is a strong fantasy or magic realist element to this novel, its equally strong in scientific influences and explanations for events. I think that’s why the fantasy element works so well – it’s layered on a structure of fact. What was your thinking behind blending these two elements?
The science was my primary interest – at least, the science of weird natural events, and allowing for the fact that this a novel, not a text book, and so the science gets a little stretched at times. But in the meanwhile, to get the orphan and the foreigner into the heart of these natural events, they needed to be able to fly to the upper atmosphere, or to slip down to the centre of the earth, or to travel beyond the moon, and it was only by some magical or fantastic device that they could do this. But yes, it was important to chain these flights back to reality again, because fantasy without any boundaries quickly becomes pretty meaningless.
The novel seems to suggest that religion is a form of madness. For example, ‘the archangel’ looks to religion to explain the world and is comforted but also warped by it, in the most literal way. And there is a wonderful scene towards the end that suggests the myriad ways someone might convince themselves to believe something and interpret events to support that belief. Did you intend to make this correlation between religion and madness? Or is it more about the psychology of religion? (Or neither.)
I’m not sure what, if anything, the book says about religion. The phrase ‘godless world’ in the title for instance is not meant in a moral sense, it refers more to the world being purposeless or random, in the sense that ‘god’ can be seen as an attempt by humans to impose order upon nature.
Regarding the archangel and his particular beliefs … well, it seemed necessary to have one of the four archetypal minor characters represent traditional religion, and for traditional religion to be addressed by the foreigner and the orphan in their quest to achieve their own understanding of the natural world – but necessary only in the sense that they address most other attitudes and philosophies too. Religion is not the specific target here, although perhaps it’s the most obvious one. As for all the accompanying sex and sadomasochism – well hey, although I’m atheist these days, I was raised Catholic, so no doubt some personal stuff is coming through.
I felt that the novel showed life on earth as subject to rhythms and cycles of nature which exist independently of us and are neither benign nor malignant, but must be respected. Was this something you were trying to convey?
To a degree, although I wouldn’t say that it was meant to be any kind of over-arching message, it’s merely something that seemed to emerge from the drama - it’s a realisation which largely eludes the foreigner and contributes to his endless suffering, but which of course the orphan grasps instinctively. But beyond the implications of this for the story, I wasn’t trying to make any particular political or ecological point. The book is meant to be entertainment, not a manifesto.
You write fiction across a range of genres, from realist literary fiction to crime to satire – all your novels (apart from Praise and its sequel 1988) have a very different style and feel from each other. Is this a conscious exploration of different literary forms, or is it simply how your ideas evolve?
Mostly the latter. With the exception of Last Drinks, where I very consciously decided to write a crime novel, the style of each new book seems to emerge organically along with the characters and the plot, and without any deliberate decision about genre on my part.
I finished this novel wowed by the journey, but not quite sure of what I’d experienced. My head was full of questions and interpretations. Were you striving for this effect – of multiple interpretations?
Ha – yes, I don’t quite know what to make of it either, and didn’t even while writing it. If it is indeed a modern parable, then I really can’t say what the moral of the story is. But certainly things are meant to be left open to interpretation. First of all, for instance, is any of it actually happening, or is it all made up in the orphan’s head? There’s no irrefutable proof either way, nor should there be. More to the point, I think its fine for a story to sound as if it has all sorts of significance and meaning, and yet in the end to not necessarily have any whatever.
Did you have any conscious literary influences when writing this novel? What were they?
No, I didn’t have any particular literary influences for this one (although I certainly have had for some of my other novels) but of course I was most definitely drawing upon a lifetime’s reading of non-fiction books about the weather and about volcanoes and about the ocean and about space and so on. The truth is, whenever I enter a bookshop or a library these days, it’s only very rarely that I make it past the non-fiction shelves and into the realms of literature.