In 1966, Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey published The Tyranny of Distance, a work that described how Australia’s history had been shaped by its geographical distance from the centers of Western culture. A new novel by Michelle de Kretser, The Life to Come, reimagines this dilemma in the second decade of the 21st century as one not of distance but of propinquity. Globalization has made Australia a place where domestic comforts provide as much alienation as they do ease, and where the very idea of domesticity finds itself disturbingly vulnerable to unsettling dislocations. Moving between Australia, Europe, and Asia, and with a global narrative viewpoint that follows the intertwined destinies of several characters across time and space, The Life to Come highlights displacement in both its style and its content.
De Kretser herself was born in Sri Lanka—or Ceylon, as the British colonial outpost was then known. After studying in Melbourne, she worked for a while in Paris as an editor of travel guides, before settling in Sydney. Her previous novel Questions of Travel (2012), which won many book awards in Australia, takes its title from the Elizabeth Bishop poem of the same name and extends Bishop’s quizzical lyric voice into a disquisition on what the idea of travel might mean under “the reign of Google,” as one character here puts it, where “soon everyone will be a tourist.” Bishop’s poem ends by interrogating the idea of home: “Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” By contrast, the heroine of de Kretser’s novel lays “claim to two passports and three email addresses,” since “she was between destinations, she was virtual, she was online, she was on the phone.”
If, for the late modernist Bishop, exile becomes an enabling intellectual structure, for de Kretser the assumption of a stable center, on which the concept of exile depends, itself no longer holds. Each experience her characters have layers one set of places and perceptions upon many others. For de Kretser’s characters, estrangement is a familiar state. This naturalization of estrangement can be seen as especially appropriate to a country that houses the world’s second-highest percentage of inhabitants born outside its national borders (Israel is first).
Though the main character, Pippa, feels frustrated by “eventless Australia,” which she contrasts in her mind to “momentous and world-historical Europe,” she also feels Paris is “so crushing” that she will be “glad to get back to Sydney,” because “everything hasn’t already been done there.” As in J. M. Coetzee’s late fiction, also set in Australia, the deliberate movement away from historical centers to global margins represents a larger trajectory in which the very notion of progressive historical narrative unravels.
The Social Lives of Form
The superficiality of contemporary social life that de Kretser’s fiction portrays does not result only from the flattening effects of digital globalization. It also stems from a particularly Australian awareness of the slightness of human agency. D. H. Lawrence, in his neglected Australian novel Kangaroo (1923), similarly commented on how Sydney seems at night to be “sprinkled on the surface of a darkness into which it never penetrated.” Urban constructions, in other words, appear tenuous by comparison with the all-encompassing space that surrounds them.
Mike Smith’s recent work on the archaeology of Australian deserts has determined that human occupation of the continent goes back 60,000 years, a historical span vastly exceeding the conventional Western historical framework of just a few thousand years.1 As the Australian immigrant Ravi puts it in Questions of Travel, “He belonged to a continent where nature … far outstripped anything humans had produced.” In this unsettling environment, Ravi feels that conventional relations between the human and post-human have become scrambled, so that it is no longer so easy to distinguish a traditional humanist consciousness: “It was in the forests … that he felt the planet’s scale.”
This sense of the Australian world being permeated by disjunctions between social and natural environments is also remarked on by Ash in The Life to Come. Ash, who, like Ravi in Questions of Travel, was brought up in Sri Lanka, wonders, “What word might apply to what they were moving through: certainly not ‘landscape.’ It was a presence that spoke of absence.” There is a good deal of satirical social comedy in de Kretser’s new novel, mocking as it does the manners of academics and the pedantry of bureaucrats. But there is also a rhetorically unfathomable quality, suggestive of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, which is the source of both the book’s title and its epigraph:
CLOV: Do you believe in the life to come?
HAMM: Mine was always that.
In this light, Pippa’s “eventless Australia” becomes a figure of a world in which human beings have found themselves systematically decentered, a reality seen as symptomatic of a planetary condition. The Life to Come is a rich, sensory evocation of the sights and smells of a city from which the real substance of sights and smells appears to have been eviscerated. Celeste asks her mother, “Why do Australians go on so much about food?,” and receives the reply: “Because they live in a country of no importance.”
The novel lavishly chronicles the consumption of exotic meals in the city’s restaurants, the pleasures of “dried sausage spread with mustard” and “big, juicy, kangaroo steaks,” the atmosphere of chaotic urban streets, and “the time of year when the light—even in squalid Sydney—was a pure, inquisitorial gold.” The overall effect is not one of hedonism but rather of ennui, as if the presence of these feasts for the senses are only photographic negatives implying their own absence.
This is not to say that the narrative avoids addressing how disturbing political events in the wider world impact this local scene. The novel rotates among various different locales and viewpoints, with characters weaving into and out of each other’s lives as the years go by. The book begins with Pippa as a student of English literature sharing a house with her tutor, George Meshaw, who goes on to become a famous author based in the United States. It also tells the story of Pippa’s childhood friend Cassie, with whom the political scientist Ash has a relationship. They cross paths again nine years later when Cassie contacts her former lover after hearing that Australian border authorities had forced the return of a boat loaded with Tamil asylum seekers. The book’s third section focuses on the life of Celeste, a French-Australian translator based in Paris, who recalls how her communist father was tortured by French security services in an effort to extract information before the Paris massacre of 1961, when many Algerian anti-war demonstrators were drowned in the Seine.
This a novel that knows its history and positions itself carefully in relation to world affairs of the 20th century. Yet these colonial traumas find themselves in danger of becoming attenuated in a digital environment that reduces politics to questions of Facebook likes. The novelist Pippa, who feels “she had grit, longing, imagination, a capacity for hard work, a measure of selfishness, a shot of insanity—in short, everything needed for greatness except talent,” compensates for this deficiency by knowing, “unequivocally, that she was on the right side.” She posts meticulously on Facebook to demonstrate her public credentials on issues such as “domestic violence or gay marriage or climate change.”
By having the amnesiac, commodified world of Sydney represent larger global concerns, de Kretser’s novel speaks to a condition in which the specificity of individual objects and perspectives is undermined.
The portrait has a satirical edge and indicts Australian acquiescence to systems of conformity and the satisfactions of being a team player. But the underlying melancholy in The Life to Come derives from a sense that Pippa’s diluted agency is more than just a local idiosyncrasy or national characteristic. Disempowerment has become a chronic condition in a world where power of all kinds seems to operate at an opaque distance.
In The Life to Come, the old geographical division between Western cities and relatively isolated regions—an opposition that privileged Paris or New York as world capitals and relegated other territories to a subordinate position—has been supplanted by a digital world in which simultaneity and proximity appear to be ubiquitous, as in a network of Facebook friends, and where the ultimate provenance of such interactions remains perplexingly elusive.
As an Australian novelist, Pippa feels that “her books would be island continents: self-sufficient, self-enclosed,” since “history, benignly neglectful, had handed her the small picture.” The more substantive question raised by this novel, however, is what happens when “history” itself becomes small, reduced to slogans or marketing formulas. That is the labyrinth within which de Kretser’s characters find themselves ensnared.
Pippa remarks at one point that whereas the “big division used to be between people who were born before the Second World War and people who were born after,” now for a later generation it is knowledge of poststructuralism that provides this kind of decisive break and, consequently, “a different way of seeing the world.” Though the only language spoken fluently by political scientist Ash is English, the narrator comments sardonically on how “he had enough French to deploy, in a respectable accent, various phrases made essential by Derrida and Foucault.”
Poststructuralism in this context appears to reduce everything to the question of framing and representation—a style of commodification that systematically refurbishes subjects of all kinds as easily packaged goods. Will, who is said to have done the same creative writing course in Sydney as Pippa but who now works in finance, typically asserts that “the great thing about globalization” is how “you can get into Thai or Malaysian or Indian cuisine without ever having to know any Indians or Malaysians or Thais.”
Feeling like the Internet
By having the amnesiac, commodified world of Sydney represent larger global concerns, de Kretser’s novel speaks to a condition in which the specificity of individual objects and perspectives is undermined as time and space seem to fold back onto each other. Ash’s sense of how “the shadow of old events lay across him” is heightened by the urban environment of Australia, where it is as if “the humidity, the massive, grimy stones and the trees in the gardens overhead had caused time to run backwards.”
These ghosts of time past circle back disarmingly, just as the novel itself seems to rotate in space and time. This introduces a weird sense of alterity, of life being somehow never quite existentially present to itself, but always past or to come. What Ravi in Questions of Travel describes as “an other-way-around thing about life here” similarly manifests itself in The Life to Come, through the appearance of “a smooth mauve trunk” near Sydney Airport that seems like “a tree from another planet.”
De Kretser’s sharp satirical comedy seems to take on a kind of extraterrestrial quality, where social life itself is imprisoned within a matrix of Twitter feeds, and where the “other-way-around” environment enhances this sense of confinement. Human consciousness seems to float inside a larger network of digital circuits. The tyranny of distance comes now to epitomize a philosophical difference between cause and effect, action and outcome. The Life to Come combines distance and propinquity in a teasing, comic imbroglio, where the disruption of local circumstances by more inscrutable horizons displaces characters from the centers of their own world and exposes them in disorienting ways to the uncertainties of a planetary sphere.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 341–43. ↩