1988 is a quiet novel. It does not shout, it doesn’t dance. It isn’t flash or big-noting. It is laconic and understated. It is full of the silent work of uneventful days. It is the antithesis of “look at moi, look at moi.” Nothing in 1988 is ever spelt out, nothing is over worked. No point is made, nothing is revealed. This is not to say it is absurd, or Beckett-esque, though there are moments. It is resolutely realist, this is because it is about Australian men in the bush, and they aren’t given to flights of fancy. The tale of 1988 is simple and without elegance. Two Brisbane lads, Wayne and Gordon, get a job as weather observers at a remote Northern Territory lighthouse, Cape Don. When they get there they observe the weather, drink a lot, occasionally fail to observe the weather. They adjust, and fail to adjust, to life in their remote and difficult circumstances. They have petty squabbles, they drink some more, they observe the weather. Their six month stint is done they go home, having missed out on pretty much the whole of Australia’s biggest party: the bicentennial. So the gist of it is that this is a novel about Australia and about blokes. The really great thing about 1988 is that it simplifies neither of these and ever so gently makes them complicated and unwieldy concepts. Sweetly it is novel that undemanding and is never burdened by seeking big answers. It might have them, or might not: they don’t really matter because the sun comes up anyway and is there a bigger question than that of the certainty of tomorrow?
1988 is a prequel to the author’s first novel Praise which won the Vogel prize in 1992. Praise is a sexier novel, and that is mostly because it is all about bottoms, There is nothing wrong with that, I was very enamoured with Praise and myself wrote a novel deeply imitative of it. That being said now that years have passed, and a number of bottoms with them, I am less attracted to it and its navigation of banal sex and vast apathy. It is a good work, skilful and playful, but it evokes adolescence it such a potent, embarrassing form that it will never sit right with me again. The thinking that Praise aims to build are not the thoughts of maturity, they are the thoughts that might lead to it. As such reading it again with hindsight is painful. Like looking a photo of oneself in clothes reminiscent of late seventies Countdown, or Top of the Pops. You can’t deny is it you but it is not you anymore. It is the archaeology of selves. I imagine McGahan, who has gone onto bigger bolder projects, might suggest the same thing when looking at the archaeology of his writing. 1988 is a more mature and disciplined work, second novels are not required to have the attention grabbing qualities that get a work past the Alcatraz mentality of publishing houses. Praise does have those qualities, it is about sex after all. 1988 is about love and home, racy it isn’t.
Throughout the novel blokes come in all shapes and sizes: there are white blokes and Aboriginal blokes, there are city blokes and country blokes, there are heterosexual blokes and gay blokes, there are blokes with sex and there are blokes without, there are employed blokes and unemployed blokes, hard working blokes and lazy blokes, there are blokes that drink and blokes that are dry, and so on. And 1988 does not require that a camp be found and tent pitched when a bloke finds a spot he belongs, rather the novel makes it clear how blokes sit in many camps, sometimes opposite camps, simultaneously, and without needing to resolve those contradictions. It does so with superb calm and without the bombast and élan of declaring anything. Like a bloke it just says what it says. The complications that 1988 maps out are spilled out over the course of the narrative. 1988 doesn’t have a narrative that entwines and captures the reader delicately navigating a route toward a summit convergence. Quite the opposite, it lopes along without any major events that might suggest climax. (This is something of a joke, since the possibility of sexual climax is very limited, and when the possibility does arise it is so fraught with the thought of another white man fucking a black woman at the suggestion of a black man that it doesn’t happen at all.) The only climaxes in 1988 are handmade. The plain and unencumbered delivery of 1988 is simply a surface, it is another joke about what blokes say, how they say it, and what it means. The obvious nature of the plain spoken delivery does not obscure the complexity and thought that has gone into what has been said, the implications (just like with those men of few words who inhabit Australia’s colonial and early national history) are clear.
Wayne and Gordon (who narrates) don’t follow the river into the heart of darkness, they stand on the river banks and fret. They are artist and writer respectively, archetypes of the civilising project, and the majority of the time they spend at Cape Don they spend drunk. The correspondences to a hundred, a thousand other colonial projects should already be clear. Wayne and Gordon have no chance, they are lost and their chosen paths are empty shells. They have no civilisation to offer, they can hope to learn but will have learn the simple things first: like the weather. They see to the weather station instruments, they write it all down and report it to Darwin. They know what has happened but don’t know what will happen. When a cyclone passes by they don’t know if it is headed their way or not, they don’t know what to do, what strong wind does. They don’t know much about anything. And the colonial project will never allow time enough to do so. They are trapped by their promises before embarkation to return with something of value (Gordon a novel; Wayne an exhibition’s worth of paintings) from their Congo, and so throughout the narrative the promised return gets closer but their ability to produce anything sustainable from Cape Don is curtailed yet they must return.
Wayne and Gordon aren’t bad blokes but they’re out of their depth, they can see that the indigenous people have no problem living at Cape Don, and don’t know how to be there. All of this is framed by the bicentennial, and most particularly by expo 88. All the congratulations, tall ships, parliament house openings, international expos don’t mean a thing. Australian civilisation is a series of lies and deceptions, and they can’t embrace the contradictions nor can Wayne and Gordon escape them. Cape Don is a simple microcosm for Australia and Wayne and Gordon can’t hack it. The other white men in 1988 either hit the bottle incredibly hard or simply go nuts. There is only one white woman who makes it to Cape Don, and she is selected on the basis that she might offer sex. 1988 maps out the crudity of the Australian colonial project, and the limited nature of its messing with the geographic fringe. The novel never spells it out, never condemns or decries but it is all in there and that makes 1988 a book worth reading.