Tuesday, May 18, 2010

a jungle of butter dishes

Whispering Gums, when asked to recommend an underread book on Reading Matters, said that people should read Thea Astley's Drylands, but, not having Drylands, I read A Kindness Cup instead. I look forward to hearing what you have to say, she wrote. All righty then.

So --

-- (and for the benefit of anyone who is planning to read the book, I'll warn you that I am about to give away the ending) --

A Kindness Cup is written with a prose accent that might owe something to Patrick White. It shares his habit of picking words quite precisely so that individual sentences are left frieghted with meaning. This precision, along with constant overtones and undertones of judgment and watchfulness, gives the prose a prissiness; the authors like to use prinking words like frightful and dreadful, even though the horrors that occur in the story seem to deserve meatier language. It's this refusal to reward us with the meatier language that gives the prose its strange charge. White used his own prissiness to describe shit and dog balls, setting the substance of a sentence against the manner in which it was being described -- exactness fighting against mess. Astley has her own version of this tension. She places her precise language in the setting of a Queensland country town: sloppy, drab, drooping, shabby, hot, and inhabited by thugs and yobs.

She chooses unexpected words, and she measures things against a point of perfect balance that is never reached, the language of an idealist who sees that the world is less than it should be.

The council ripples petered out. The moment became a blemish.


Grief keeps pecking at her for the vanished past, when even her voice had seemed purer.

Sometimes she moves into mock-heroic language.

Man among men, he projected his strength into each watching face, even that of the town printer who had proclaimed his unworthiness.

Occasionally she will zero in on some very slight thing, weighing it.

The angle of his vowel, that first vowel, lecherously over-toned plus the quiet refinement of the soured mouth and face made for frightful antithesis.

When her verbs carry emotion then the emotion is often a derogatory one, making the nouns a little ridiculous -- grief pecks and voices quack, and a man "fumbles his way along a row towards a group of empty chairs." Astley regards events bitterly, pessimistically: a handshake between two men is "the most counterfeit of gestures," and when a girl becomes an accomplished professional singer her progress is not an artistic one; it is a process of crass acquisition:

She suspected it was only a voice even though it was the best in those parts; and not until she had begun to soar her way through a jungle of butter dishes and cut-glass trophies was her assurance bolstered.

The habit of gauging and judging gets into the characters too.

He pauses, having gauged the response to a nicety, as the applause breaks out.

We are never encouraged to like the characters, or enjoy them, but we are invited to think about them critically as the author tweaks them around in her Cubist apparatus, searching for the least flattering angle.* The part of our brain that might have empathised with the singing girl when she weeps, "soggy with tears," is left to search for other things to do, like think about the structure of the story, and the author's intentions, and where we might fit into her universe. This is Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt taken from the stage and put into a book. A Kindness Cup is an angry, strident story -- Brecht was angry and strident too.

Astley's country town is called Taws. A taws, or tawse, is a whip, an instrument of punishment, and the townsmen here punish the local aboriginal people with impunity, shooting them, harassing them, and chasing them away. Taws is the whip that our lead character uses on himself. Twenty years ago, when he was teaching in the local high school, a group of men from the town chased a family of aborigines towards the brink of a cliff. The townsmen were armed; they committed massacre. One of the women threw herself over the cliff and the brutality of this suicide brought the violence to a halt. The schoolteacher and two friends arrived, intending to stop the attack, but it was already over; and the woman's brains were splattered across the rocks. "Lucretia," said the schoolteacher, who had been teaching Latin to his students.

Raped and blackmailed by the king's son, the Lucretia of Roman legend begged her father to bring the rapist to justice, stabbing herself in the breast with a dagger to prove her unhappiness. Rome's citizens, outraged by the impunity of verminous royalty, toppled the monarchy. In A Kindness Cup the disruptive aftermath of the woman's suicide peters out; the police chief who was in charge of the "hunting party" is tried and acquitted and goes on with his life. The social structure of the town remains intact, nothing is toppled or changed. Twenty years later, returning to Taws, the schoolteacher tries to force people to acknowledge the murder. Now he is a "fanatic;" he is still trying to give the legend its correct ending.

This teacher's name is Tom Dorahy, and his creator refers to him as Dorahy rather than Tom. My mind kept pronouncing Dorahy as Dorothy, which made me wonder -- because Astley doesn't let things happen by mistake, and if she names a character X you know there's a reason for them being called X -- if he was supposed to represent an Everyperson, a man-woman, Tom-Dorothy; or if he was Dorothy Gale, making his way through Oz. Perhaps the incomplete sound of the word dorahy seemed to suit his character. (It asks for something hard in the middle.) The author prefers to call all of her male characters by their surnames, and this might be a deliberate part of the distancing effect. (It's also a cultural thing, as in the army, or in an old schoolroom, or some other hierarchical situation but that doesn't mean she had to extend it into her prose, unless she wanted to, for a reason, but what was the reason?) Charlie Lunt is Lunt, Fred Buckmaster is Buckmaster, and Snoggers Boyd is Boyd. The same rule does not extend to the women, who have a tiny amount of page-time compared to the men: our female lead Gracie Tilburn is always either Gracie or Gracie Tilburn, but never Tilburn. Lucy Boyd is Lucy. Gracie is a false grace, an ineffectual grace, a woman who wants men to like her, flirting with them in front of their wives at dinner parties; the character will sleep with murderous Buckmaster but she'll help Dorahy too; she enters the book in a state of physical and moral virginity, and with respect to the latter she more or less stays that way, deliberately, it seems.

She was claiming seclusion as well, an untouched-by-the-world virginity she thought might appeal.

Gracie's "doric neck" ties her back to the ancient world whose legends have failed Dorahy; the purity, the balance, of these old stories is a ruin, they don't work here, they are lies. All of the characters, no matter what they do or how they behave, or how they try to get away, are doomed to bounce back to the whip and suffer punishment. Dorahy's friend Jenner sings tirra lirra like Lancelot in Tennyson, but his knightly qualities fizzle out. The boys Dorahy is trying to teach remain fundamentally uneducated. Legend fails, justice fails, brutality wins, a pacifist character is pushed, falls, hits his head, and dies, but this sacrificial lamb is not enough, and the violence goes on. The town printer plans to insert a story about the massacre into the local paper but his assistant betrays him (and even this betrayal is useless, a result of "devious compulsions," masturbatory-sounding, that make the Judas "tremble with the excitement of disloyalty that has never bought him anything"), the workshop is burnt down by a mob -- the mob is never punished. Astley keeps setting up stories that ought to end in forgiveness or retribution or cleansing, and then she squashes them. On the last page a pack of townsmen bashes the schoolteacher and the printer bloody. The pack achieves a temporary catharsis; the reader does not.

* Which is more or less why this post sounds so clinical. A Kindness Cup, with its allusions and its suggestive names, was closer to a problem than a story: it wanted to be solved. The book is a gift to the Australian high school curriculum. You could write a ream of essay questions.

1. Most of the active characters in this book are men. What part do the women play? Why do you think Astley wrote like this? Discuss.

2. Do you think the author spends enough time with the aboriginal characters? Why or why not?

3. "Fred dangled a lost pawn. It was an insolent gesture over-interpreted by the father who saw himself thus." What does this tell us about Buckmaster? How do you think it affects his behaviour in other parts of the novel?

4. Is Charlie Lunt active or passive? Is his behaviour in the novel good or bad? Discuss.

5. What if Kowaha had survived? How would that change the story? Discuss.

And so on.


  1. Oh DKS, I've just found this. Last week was hectic for me with birthdays (including my Dad's 90th) and some little contracts that all seem to be reaching their deadlines right now. Isn't it always the way? I do wish blogspot enabled email subscriptions the way wordpress does, then I would have come across this much earlier!

    Anyhow, I love your analysis. I was going to reread this book but now I'm not sure I need to. You've refreshed my memory of it more than amply. This was my first Astley and it bowled me over. Her language is, as you say, so precise, so carefully controlled. And you are right about her novels - they offer little hope but there's a place for that, for our ending a book "knowing" that there's no easy solution and, worse, knowing that atrocities continue. She gets you right in the guts.

  2. I wasn't fussed. I knew you'd find it eventually. I was fascinated by the ruthlessness in her, the fact that she opened up all the conventional paths to heroism and grace (the Lone Man Speaking Out who is Tom, the Pacifist who is Lunt, the Troubled Man Who Finally Takes A Stand who is Boyd) and then shuts them down and stamps on them, as if to say: "You thought it would be this easy? You optimists." I wouldn't've minded seeing the Aboriginal characters brought into the story a bit more, though. As it is, they don't do much more than wave hello and die, which seems disproportionate.

  3. Re-reading this post it occurs to me that if I wanted to sum up the idea behind Kindness Cup in a single word, then that word would be frustration. It's full of forward movement arrested. Wake in Fright, too.