American-born literary critic Kevin Rabalais moved to Australia to write his first novel, The Landscape of Desire, a book that uses the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition to explore love and identity, desire and death, against the backdrop of the Australian outback. At the core of the novel, both Burke and Wills are driven by their separate passions for the same young Sydney actress, who anxiously awaits their return back on the coast. The Landscape of Desire has already attracted accolades from David Malouf and Colum McCann, among others.
Now, the book is our second pick in Readings’ new series of special features celebrating emerging Australian writers, sponsored by the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) and written by some of Australia’s leading authors and journalists. Two-times Miles Franklin winner Alex Miller spoke to Kevin Rabalais for Readings about writing, the influence of landscape on literature and his first novel.
One of the problems with interviewing Kevin Rabalais is that it’s quite difficult to get him to talk about himself. He responds to almost every question by referring – as if to locate himself by familiar precedent – to the work and practice of another writer. For example, when asked to comment on his sense of the creative process and the impossibility of ever really knowing where one is going during the composition of a novel, he talked about the relationship of Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver, and of Moby Dick. Referring so readily to a store of literary example seems the habit of a critic or a scholar. And indeed, though The Landscape of Desire is his first novel, Kevin Rabalais will already be familiar to readers of our principal daily newspapers, where his book reviews and author interviews regularly appear.
In The Landscape of Desire he has abandoned his critical voice and written one of the most satisfying and original first novels I’ve read for some time. One of the greatest sources of my pleasure in reading this book was the consistent intelligence of the writing. There are moments when observations break on the reader with the force of revelation. For example, when King, the last survivor of the exploring expedition, finds the body of Wills, and imagines himself setting off alone through the desert: ‘The last member of a lost tribe. A tribe that was intent on losing itself, he now thinks, from the beginning.’ King’s sense of this compulsion to lose oneself in the wilderness, to embrace, as it were, the threat of the great solitariness, comes to him with a feeling that he has stumbled on something essential to the entire human journey – not simply to the more-than-half-unconscious motivation of this expedition into the unknown hinterland of the Australian continent.
Rabalais was living in his native Louisiana when he first read about the Burke and Wills expedition. He saw it at once, he says, as a novel crying out to be written. He and his wife came to live in Australia so that he could write it. They will stay here, he says, ‘as long as Australians will have us’. Of course, the Australian writer Alan Attwood had already written a very fine (and strangely uncelebrated) novel based on the experiences of the only survivor of the Burke and Wills expedition, King, and his rescue by Howitt. King and Howitt also figure largely in Rabalais' novel. But these two books are very different.
The single most impressive feature of The Landscape of Desire, aside from the very beautiful and often poetic tension of the writing, is its extraordinary structure. For Rabalais has eschewed the usual narrative drive, and has presented the story to us in the form of fractured sections, often of an extremely short duration, frequently no more than a page or two. This might be the form in which a novelist first sees the pieces of their story: spread out like a collection of cuttings, their edges touching, but not in any coherent order. Throughout the book, the reader’s attention is constantly shifted from one particular time and location to another, until the whole story has finally been assembled. By the end, the extraordinary (often surprising) connections between the fractured sections of story have all been established. But the pieces have not been put together in a chronological order: their randomness is the randomness of experience itself. There is, in a conventional sense, no certain beginning, middle or end to this story. For the sutures that hold the shards of it together are the incidental links of ‘discovery’ itself. It is a bold and brilliant strategy. And, miracle of miracles, Rabalais has had the skill to make it work!
I found it necessary – and rewarding – to go back and re-read this book in order to understand where I had been taken by this writer. Like all the very best novels, The Landscape of Desire preserves its greatest rewards for the second reading: it conducts a conversation with itself that can only be appreciated after one has heard that conversation in full. And why not? We listen again and again to our favourite pieces of music, and each time we listen we experience the music in a new way.
‘For Louisianans,’ reflects Rabalais, ‘the Mississipi River is always at the back of your mind even if you’re not looking at it’. In this novel he has written about the penetration of a landscape that is for the most part flat and dry. Indeed, one of the achievements of this book is that the Australian landscape is a constant presence – not only in the external world, but in the interior lives of its characters. At one point in the book he writes, ‘landscape alters our Gods’. Asked if he thinks the landscape in which a writer lives is intrinsic to their writing, his first response was an anecdote about Dostoyevsky in Geneva. When pressed for his own view, he linked the fatalistic sense induced by living in New Orleans – that inundation and the end are never far off – with the Australian sense of a threat of spiritual inundation by the emptiness of the outback.
Rabalais’ sensibility is interior and poetic. He places the importance of reflection and nuance above incident and narrative. Some readers will be troubled by this. For this reader, it was a rare pleasure. The writing is unhurried, the journey of the travellers inching across the landscape of their minds. The reader is invited to dwell and reflect on the significance and meaning of the journey and the tenuous connections of its parts, and not merely to reach its end.
In reading this fine novel, one feels the writer’s care, his joy in revision, his pleasure in second thoughts, his profound respect of craft. And not least among its numerous pleasures is Rabalais’ gently ironic humour. There is nothing flat or dry about the mind of this writer from the Mississipi Delta. I, for one, hope he stays with us as long as we will have him, for our literary culture can only be enriched by his presence.
Alex Miller has won the Miles Franklin Award twice: for Journey to the Stone Country (2003) and The Ancestor Game (1993), which also won that year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize. His latest book is Landscape of Farewell.