Cate Kennedy is well known as one of Australia’s leading literary figures ‒ and our local master of the short story form. This month, she makes her novelistic debut. Multi-award-winning Australian novelist Gail Jones spoke to Cate about The World Beneath for Readings' New Australian Writing Feature series.
Somewhat mischievously, the writer William Faulkner once suggested that most novelists are really failed poets: they try poetry, are miserably defeated, then stretch lazily into prose, haunted by the lost poetic of ordinary things. In this version novelists are thinned out, beaten flat, rendered dull and exilic, poor creatures dealing with story when they might have found a single image. Faulkner himself, of course, was never such a case: his work rang with the inner poet and retained its intensity and concentration.
I’m curiously reminded of Faulkner in reading Cate Kennedy’s brilliant first novel, The World Beneath. She began as a poet and a travel writer (the marvellous Sing and Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal deserves more attention), then published an extraordinary collection of short stories, Dark Roots, for which she was widely cherished and critically applauded. Dark Roots announced the advent of a seriously gifted writer. Kennedy has an almost classical sense of structure and a wisely nuanced style, one which fluctuates between vernacular language and poetic lyricism and seems Faulknerian, dare I say, in its density and deep concern for the fragile selves that lie beneath the insecure surface of the everyday.
In the rapturous reception to her book of stories, reviewers routinely commented on her work as ‘dark’, ‘intelligent’, ‘moody’, ‘eloquent’ and ‘funny’, but it also has a gravitas often lacking these days in Australian letters, a sense that simple experience matters, that families are genuinely mysterious, that there is an almost mythic dimension to every life too often casually disregarded. ‘Learning to dance in public,’ is how Kennedy describes the transition from writing stories to a novel, and she mentions her debt to her famously clever editor at Scribe, Aviva Tuffield, in helping her find a way through to the novelistic mode. There is no failed poet here, and no junior short-story writer: Kennedy’s work from the beginning announced a confident style and a sure and singular voice.
One of the great pleasures in talking to Cate Kennedy is to discover how clear-sighted and canny she is about her own work. ‘I wanted to write a book about stasis,’ she says, ‘about people spinning their wheels and then encountering a crisis that knocks them sideways’. So The World Beneath is about change and redemption, but not in any corny or simple sense. It follows the thread of an experience Kennedy encountered in 1983, when she was in Tasmania during the Franklin Dam protests. She was not a protester, she says, but spoke to protesters, and learned gradually – as we all did – of the historical significance of those events.
The World Beneath tells the story of an unhappy family, unhappy in its own particular way: Rich, a nomadic, self-obsessed photographer; Sandy, his dippy, New-Agey, fractious and estranged partner; and their ‘emo goth’ daughter, Sophie, a 15-year-old spiky with fury and fiercely intelligent. It is a credit to the skill of this novel that these characters engage and move us, seem utterly plausible, and are situated convincingly in a narrative of transformation. Rich, whose day-job is the manufacture of banal infomercials, has returned after years of absence to try to reconcile with his daughter, and suggests a trip to the Tasmanian wilderness as an opportunity for father-daughter bonding that might introduce each to the other in the heightened space of an adventure. He kits himself out in designer trekking gear, takes his expensive camera, hoping to capture and commodify what he sees; meanwhile Sandy takes the opportunity to head off to a goddess workshop, rendered in hilarious and cringe-worthy detail. Sophie is at first attracted to the possibly glamorous returned father, but becomes disillusioned, embeds herself in her cell phone, her iPod and various forms of digital detachment, and it is in her life, most movingly, that we see the emotional drive of the narrative open out. Cate speaks circumspectly of her character Sophie, suggesting that the ethical arc of the story demonstrates we must all ‘lose what we’re addicted to’. She speaks of young people who break up relationships by text-message and record fights on mobile phones: it is unmediated experience, ‘shedding accoutrements’, as she puts it, that the author pursues as a kind of lost, forgotten or repressed knowledge of ourselves. In the idealised scenario of back-to-nature and parent-child-bonding, things go wrong, of course, and lives are recalibrated. The trek moves into terror, darkness and a wonderfully satisfying resolution.
Cate Kennedy’s adult protagonists are oddly trapped in 1983: the Franklin protest was the place at which they met and the high point of their lives, and both mythologise the past in a manner oppressive to their daughter. Asked if she has written a ‘green novel’, Kennedy responds that she ‘is interested above all in the need we have for a lonely place to retreat to, but that we want our wilderness to include a kiosk’. Critical of the wilderness industry, which she considers ‘ethically compromised’, Kennedy is also recommending a kind of anti-commercial authenticity, something modest, undeluded and based on not wishing to contain or to conquer nature. ‘You can’t project onto wilderness,’ she says. ‘It’s just there, it’s just itself, and you’re just a little speck.’ The World Beneath questions the motives of trekkers and implies that there are at times narcissistic and egomaniacal impulses involved in wishing to enter wild spaces. Sandy, in a comic echo of her Franklin days, dithers about whether or not to cut back a tree in her yard and seems to suffer a condition of terminal ineptitude. Rich, on the other hand, is a legend in his own mind, foolishly confident and dangerously ignorant. He is a complex character, driven pompously to believe that he will witness the (extinct) Tasmanian tiger – ‘we love the idea,’ says Kennedy, ‘of something that survives in spite of us’ – and pathetically to encounter his own limits and foolishness. There is a wonderful scene in which father and daughter examine the traces of the tiger in the Hobart museum: this sets Rich up for his fantasy and Sophie for her intuition about the frailty of existence. The novel follows their trek not in any simple unfolding; the plot moves between all three characters, giving each their due, complicating each with poignancy and drama.
There is a taut moment in The World Beneath, in which Sophie stumbles over a cliff. The prose then pauses. We enter a gap. We don’t know at that point if Sophie falls to injury or death or is mysteriously saved; we don’t know if the world releases her, or buoys her up. This event announces itself with a pull in the gut, a kind of terror of consequence and a deep solicitude and affection for the welfare of the character. In the philosophical world of the novel, we enter the complexity and the ordinary tragedy of a family off-the-rails.
And there’s more, as Rich’s infomercials might say. The World Beneath uses the Greek legendary place names of central Tasmania to imply that we might also read this story as a kind of myth. Cate Kennedy mentions the Demeter-Persephone myth – Persephone is abducted and taken to the underworld to the distress of her mother; this is Hades, a world of shades, figures living a suspended shadowy life, not fully present, not wholly animated. So the novel reads on many dimensions and with an ethical concern about what it might mean to live as if we are shades, half-aware, already half gone.
Towards the end of our conversation, Cate Kennedy mentions the ‘work on yourself’ novel writing promotes, the strange luxury of thinking something through, of finding the words for and clarifying life’s puzzling experiences. With *The World Beneath she has also gifted this capacity to her readers. To put it another way, she has assumed her readers are intelligent enough to find – in the beautiful writing and the gripping story – some extra dimension of thoughtfulness and self-examination. It’s a feisty tale wonderfully told; rigorous, clever, and yes, highly recommended.