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Linearity as Metadiscourse in Murray Bail’s Fiction

Marie Herbillon
p. 225-237


Il est possible de considérer que la complexité inhérente à l’œuvre du romancier australien Murray Bail découle principalement de son inhabituel degré de sophistication abstraite. Même si certains commentateurs ont rapidement détecté la géométrisation systématique de ses espaces narratifs, dans lesquels s’entrecroisent des myriades de lignes droites, peu en ont souligné la dimension politico-parodique: en feignant de souscrire à la culture de la linéarité, Bail vise manifestement à la dénoncer et, avec elle, un certain héritage occidental.
Cette réflexion sur le concept de linéarité peut également prendre un tour métafictionnel: bien que ses intentions parodiques le contraignent parfois à emprunter au réalisme certains de ses codes narratifs, l’auteur désavoue indubitablement ce genre littéraire par trop linéaire, qu’il voit comme "la grande malédiction de la littérature australienne. "
Toutefois, au-delà d’une linéarité structurelle apparente, Bail ne renonce pas à une utopie de langage: dans Eucalyptus (1998), il avance ainsi de possibles alternatives au(x) genre(s) qu’il discrédite. Cet article explore les manières dont la linéarité peut être intégrée dans le bagage culturel et épistémologique de l’Australie plutôt que d’en être exclue, dans le but de définir l’outil linguistique original que Bail s’efforce de créer

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1The complexity of the Australian novelist Murray Bail’s writings may be seen to derive primarily from their unusual degree of abstract sophistication. This crucial preoccupation with form was detected early on by Patrick White, who instantly recognised in Bail "a visual writer" (Pons 4). Although other critics—such as Helen Daniel—have subsequently underlined the systematic geometrisation of his narrative spaces, in which myriads of straight lines intertwine, few commentators have concentrated so far on the key role played in Bail’s work by the notion of linearity.

2The author’s reflection on linearity encapsulates both a political and a self-reflexive dimension. These political concerns can best be understood in the light of an article where Alan J. Bishop convincingly debunks "the myth of Western mathematics’ cultural neutrality" (Bishop 75). Up to the mid-1970s, he maintains, it was generally admitted that mathematics was "culture-free knowledge," the "universal validity" (Bishop 71) of which seemed beyond doubt. In the course of the last three decades, however, anthropological discoveries have led to the gradual realisation that mathematics as we know it in the West was actually no less arbitrary than language: as a western European epistemological construction, our peculiar mathematical approach thus needs to be regarded not as a neutral medium, but as the "product of a [given] cultural history" (Bishop 73). Bishop goes on to explain that "alternative mathematical systems exist" (Bishop 72), including other conceptions of arithmetics, logics and—most importantly for my purpose—geometry. Because a number of these alternative geometric systems sharply contrast with "the conception of space... underl[ying] Euclidean geometry, [which] relies particularly on the ‘atomistic’ and object-oriented ideas of points, lines, planes and solids" (Bishop 72), they suggest that the straight line may not be a unique or inevitable cultural feature.

3In literature, realism can arguably be viewed as a possible symbolic equivalent of geometric linearity. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust has deplored that realism offered "merely a miserable abstract of lines and surfaces" (Proust 921; see also Genette 39), dismissing descriptive literature as being "the furthest removed from reality" (Proust 921). In the broader context of his attack on linearity, it can reasonably be assumed that Bail has similarly repudiated realism by virtue of its straightforwardness and two-dimensionality, which materialise textually as "a stress on subject-matter, with a corresponding neglect of artistic form" (Moore 140): to him, such a non-discontinuous literary genre can only be untrue to the complex reality it purports to give a faithful representation of.

4One could nevertheless identify at least another—and more concrete—reason why Bail has repeatedly rebelled against realism, namely its overwhelming dominance in Australian writing. T. Inglis Moore pinpoints two main causes that could account for the uninterrupted hegemony of realism in Australia: the People and the Place. Firstly, he argues that the British origins of the first immigrants played a considerable part in the development of realism in colonial times: "the British settlement," he asserts, "brought the heritage of practical temper to the Australian colonies" (Moore 123). The settlers’ mentality, which is further described as "realist... , strongly utilitarian [and] extrovert, with little feeling for the life of the mind and spirit" (Moore 123), was in turn mirrored by the literature that they produced: "This trend to outwardness, this deficiency of the inner life of the emotions and the imagination, this matter-of-factness: all these characteristics of the Australian people are inevitably reflected in the outward-looking realism of the literature" (Moore 123). The harsh realities imposed by the convict system, and the tough living conditions endured by the working class in Australian society, are also perceived to have favoured a realist outlook on life—and thus fostered realism in this country. Secondly, T. Inglis Moore insists that the brands of realism which appeared in Australia were all "indigenous developments, with the exception of Richardson, the expatriate influenced by European naturalism" (Moore 134, my italics): although it may—in other parts of the world—have come to be internationalised with the process of colonisation, realism as it flourished in mid-nineteenth-century Europe was thus not directly imported to Australia, where local varieties developed as early as the colonial period (i.e. between the first settlement and 1880) and "arose naturally out of the character of the people and the pioneering environment" (Moore 134). In this perspective, People and Place emerge as the joint determinants of realism in Australia: "Conditions of pioneering in a new land" (Moore 139), "with [its] hardships and vicissitudes" (Moore 124), reinforced the settler’s practical disposition, compelling them to be "hard-headed, strong-headed realists in order to survive" (Moore 124) and putting "a premium on sincerity, translated by the writers as literary integrity" (Moore 139). Faced with a hostile environment with which they had to come to terms, the first Australian writers were thus, so to speak, stifled into narrative humility by the tremendous forces of local Nature, so that "from colonial days [onwards], both the novel and the short story have been, as a rule, thoroughly realist in content and form" (Moore 134).

5The dominance of realism was never seriously challenged until Patrick White himself endeavoured to do so: in his 1958 essay "The Prodigal Son," the Nobel Prize winner notoriously expressed his "revolt against the dullness of the prevailing realism" (Moore 141) and claimed his determination "to prove that the Australian novel [was] not necessarily the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism" (see Dutton 157). The choice of the word ‘dun-coloured’ is not innocent: it suggests a connection between the Australian land as it is commonly perceived and a specific type of literature. In the same classic text, White also referred to "the Great Australian Emptiness" (see Dutton 157): as it both points to a stereotypical view of the national landscape and functions as a metaphor for a society "in which the mind is the least of possessions" (see Dutton 157), this phrase, too, encapsulates a link between Place and People. We will see that Bail has elaborated upon the triangular relationship (Place-People-Stories) sketched by Patrick White and outlined by T. Inglis Moore.

6Against all odds, White’s memorable statement triggered much commentary, but few revolutionary changes occurred in the Australian literary sphere before the 1970s: "Despite the complexity of the modern period... and the growth of conflicting movements, there remains a broad continuity of the literary tradition" (Moore 17). This may be why Bail has kept echoing White’s condemnation of realism: on a number of occasions (see Thomas 2-3) he has distanced himself from what constitutes for him "the great curse of Australian literature" (see Daniel 198), thus relying on the "rhetoric of aridity and absence" (Thomas 3) by which his predecessor had also associated a dry land to a barren literature.

7Yet, it can be argued that Bail’s stance towards the realist genre has noticeably evolved throughout his writing career. In this essay, I will attempt to explore the extent to which Bail has diverged from, and alternatively converged towards, this specific Western legacy; to this end, I will focus on the ways in which literary linearity can be integrated in, rather than discarded from, Australia’s cultural and epistemological baggage.

Holden’s Performance, or the parody of realism

8A cursory glance at Bail’s early novels seems to reveal a dichotomy between his anti-realist discourse on the one hand and his realistic style on the other. This point has unsurprisingly been made in the rare thorough analyses of Holden’s Performance (Bail’s second novel published in 1988). For instance, as Glen Thomas points out, Robert Dixon "criticises [the book] on the basis that it contains a modernist bias" (Thomas 4). In the words of Dixon himself, "the meta-discourse of Holden’s Performance seeks to locate itself in the period of postmodernism but insistently privileges modernist values that have their origins back into the culture Bail would criticise" (Dixon 8). To sum up the argument in a somewhat caricatured way: by appropriating White’s words against realism, seen as a dominant mode in Australian writing, Bail would content himself with making a theoretical "claim for inclusion within a [non-realist] tradition" (Thomas 1) but would in practice "align... [him]self with neo-conservatism" (Dixon 8). In my view, these accusations simply overlook the parodic nature of Holden’s Performance: by feigning to endorse the culture of linearity, Bail obviously means to denounce it, together with a certain European legacy which accompanies it. This parody of the straight line notably assumes a metafictional inflection. Although he does not appear to radically challenge realism, from which he borrows some narrative codes (such as the story’s chronological progression), the author undoubtedly seeks to disavow this all-too-linear literary genre.

  • 1 Salman Rushdie, Satanic Verses, quoted in Dentith (183) who sees the phrase as a manifesto for the (...)

9In fact, parody may be considered as one of the textual sites where post-colonialism and postmodernism possibly intersect. In the post-colonial context, the politics of parody can be equated with "a policy of... ‘reclaiming the metaphor,’"1 whereby "the titles of cultural authority [are] turn[ed] back against the metropolitan centres from where they issued" (Dentith 180). Bail’s parodic strategy as a white Australian writer thus consists in appropriating a sacrosanct aspect of the Western culture to which he himself belongs, namely the concept of linearity, and in turning it against itself, with the effect of subverting the Western system of beliefs and values from within.

10According to Linda Hutcheon, who has studied "the importance of parody in postmodernist art" (Booker 7), many postmodernist writers are characterised by a frequent reliance on the forms that they aim to reject, so much so that she defines the postmodern as "the contradictory phenomenon that uses and abuses, installs and then subverts the very concepts it challenges" (Hutcheon 10; see also Lee x). Her argument is echoed by critics like M. Keith Booker, who reiterates the idea that "postmodernist works include dominant ideologies because transgression must have something to transgress against" (Booker 7), or like Cristopher Nash, who—even though he does not explicitly acknowledge Hutcheon—is similarly convinced "that the anti-Realist movement is itself ensnared in—in the shadow of—the habits of thinking of the literature, and indeed of the culture, that it seeks to subvert" (Nash x).

  • 2 In this regard, Bail may very well be referring us to the etymology of the word parody, the first m (...)
  • 3 To give but two examples: Holden is shown holding back the crowd’s momentum at the occasion of Eliz (...)

11Bail’s acquaintance with the postmodern movement is further reinforced by the fact that, beside his more implicit disavowal of realism, he introduces in Holden’s Performance a second and equally invisible metafictional layer, by dint of which he simultaneously undertakes to parody the epic genre.2 In this postmodern mock epic, Holden—as the title of the novel implies—occasionally stands for a superhero "perform[ing] superhuman deeds" (Gray 104),3 but he mostly embodies an anti-hero, who duplicates the linear historical discourses of colonialism instead of (re-)writing the history of his own country (Australia) as any conventional epic hero would be expected to. In brief, because he chooses to parody several discursive forms at once, Bail can certainly be regarded as a postmodern parodist discreetly pointing to "the relativity of all discourse" (Dentith 91).

  • 4 Bakhtin’s phrase regarding ironic discourse is quoted in Dentith (64).

12For all these reasons, Bail’s parody, far from being gratuitous, becomes the "vehicle for a critique of a whole aesthetic" (Dentith 34) and a medium for "major cultural renegotiations" (Dentith 184). As for Thomas and Dixon’s readings of Holden’s Performance, they not only fail to account for Bail’s parody of realism, they also glibly gloss over the non-realist episodes mentioned above, which precisely encapsulate both the tongue-in-cheek essence of Bail’s pseudo-realism and the postmodernist substratum distilled by his simultaneous parody of the epic genre. It may be assumed that such misunderstandings are intimately linked with the "double-voiced"4 nature of all parodic discourses: as there are "two distinct consciousnesses operating in a single utterance" (Dentith 64), readers who do not differentiate between what the author thinks and what (s)he effectively writes may easily fall into the text’s trap. In Simon Dentith’s recent book on parody, this danger is referred to as the "parodic paradox" (Dentith 36), that is the parodie texts’ ambiguous tendency to leave untouched the forms that they mean to repudiate. Like Cervantes, whose Don Quixote has regularly been "read as a celebration of misplaced idealism rather than a satire of it" (Dentith 36), Bail runs the risk of being mistaken, up to a certain point, for a proponent of linearity.

Eucalyptus, or the transgressions and integration of realism

13At first sight, Eucalyptus appears to confirm Bail’s willingness to break with literary realism in two obvious ways. Because the phrase ‘once upon a time’ is mentioned twice in Chapter I, Bail’s latest novel was perhaps bound to be readily associated with a definitely non-realist genre, i.e. the fairy tale. The book also undertakes to counter realism inasmuch as it sows—and grows—the seeds of a love-story, which may be regarded as an attempt to compensate for the near-absence of romance in Australian fiction: the plot of Eucalyptus is indeed freely inspired from an archetypal "European folk tale" (Ross 221) in which "a man (usually a king)"5 devises a daunting test that must be passed by any suitor intent on winning his beautiful daughter’s hand. Interestingly, the many reviewers who have defined the novel as a fairy tale have also tended to label it ‘modern’. What is meant by this adjective is not always clear: the term may either refer to the assumption that the story is set in the present (despite the sense of timelessness created by the author) or to the so-called (post)modem qualities which remove the narrative even further away from realism. Among these non-realist features, let us mention the novel’s intertextuality (since it contains echoes of other well-known fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel or Arabian Nights), its careful avoidance of closure (whether the beautiful princess and her charming prince live happily ever after remains untold) and—more importantly—its self-reflexivity. If we take a closer look at some of these early self-reflexive comments, however, we notice that, when Bail indeed uses the phrase "once upon a time," he does so in a near-apologetic or utterly dismissive way, as if to convince himself that there is nothing "wrong" (Bail 1998, 5) with fairy tales. Similarly, after presenting Ellen as the tale’s beautiful heroine, the narrator declares that "the idea that Holland’s daughter was like the princess locked in the tower of a damp castle was of course false" (Bail 1998, 53). Such a cultivation of paradox baffles the reader, whose expectations are repeatedly violated, but also compels him/her to reconsider the issue of the novel’s form.

14With Eucalyptus, Bail has produced what Stephen Henighan has called "a fictional hybrid." This description adequately accounts for the novel’s mixed form, which notably owes its complexity to its schizophrenic narrator, part story-teller, part commentator.

15A first, self-conscious, narratorial voice provides self-reflexive comments on a variety of subjects ranging from dreams, food, tears and scars to art, beauty, language and story-telling. Significantly, some of the most striking metafictional remarks focus on the above-mentioned triangular relationship between Place, People and Stories. As a white Australian author, Bail has been much concerned with the crisis of identity resulting from the difficulty of connecting self and place in a postcolonial context. To problematise the interaction between these two poles, he has even invented an original stylistic device which he makes much use of in Holden’s Performance: I have called "geomorphism" the process by which numerous characters are subjected—to parodic ends—to the literal influence of their environment. In Eucalyptus, Bail adds a third variable to the equation and grants explicit attention to the impact of Place, not only on its People, but also on the Stories they spin. The following passage illustrates this form of narrative geomorphism:

Actually the trouble with our National Landscape is that it produced a certain type of behaviour which has been given shape in story-telling, all those laconic hard-luck stories, as many as there are burrs on the backs of sheep, and just as difficult to remove. Yes, yes: there’s nothing more dispiriting, déjà vu, than to come across another story of disappointment set in the Australian backblocks. (Bail 1998, 25)

16More particularly, other similar digressions relate the nature of national stories to specific eucalyptus specimens, positing trees as metonyms for the landscape. For instance, the tree named E. desertorum, which passes as one of the more typical Australian eucalypts, seems to play a part in breeding the no less archetypal hard-luck stories.

... desertorum (to begin with) is only one of several hundred eucalypts; there is no precise number. And anyway, the very word, desert-or-um, harks back to a stale version of the national landscape and from there in a more or less straight line on to the national character, all those linings of the soul and the larynx, which have their origin in the bush, so it is said, the poetic virtues (can you believe it?) of being belted about by droughts, bushfires, smelly sheep and so on; and let’s not forget the isolation, the exhausted shapeless women, the crude language, the always wide horizon, and the flies.
It is these circumstances which have been responsible for all those extremely dry (dun-coloured—can we say that?) hard-luck stories which have been told around fires and on the page. All that was once upon a time, interesting for a while, but largely irrelevant here. (Bail 1998, 3)

17As for E. crebra, "one of the most common eucalypts" (Bail 1998, 248) in accordance with its botanical name meaning "frequent" in Latin, it is charged—because of its ‘weeping’ aspect—with having "shaded in khaki-grey our everyday stories, and when and how they are told, even the myths and legends, such as they are, just as surely as the Norwegians have been formed by snow and ice" (Bail 1998, 248-49). Given Bail’s self-declared allegiance to White, it would not seem unreasonable to read the word "dun-coloured" (see second quote) as a signifier of realism. Along with T. Inglis Moore, Bail thus recognises that environmental factors, next to historical ones, have "determined the realistic character of [Australian] writing, the ecology shaping the ethos" (Moore 125). However, it is perhaps less for their intrinsic realism than for their sheer archetypal nature that Bail blames these stories of hardship(s) set in the Outback: as they have the specificity of "remaining in essence the same" (Bail 1998, 25) despite "ever-changing appearances" (Bail 1998, 26), they turn out to be as monolithic as the stereotypical representations of the Australian landscape (i.e. an interior landscape).

18These—presumably—authorial interventions alternate with another, less intrusive, narratorial entity, which holds on to the main narrative thread, i.e. the traditional fairy tale theme. However, Bail performs an intriguing reversal here since instead of taking place in a fantasy world, the story of Holland, Ellen and her suitors unfolds in rural Australia, taking on—if anything—a more realistic than anti-realist colouring. What is more, Bail’s narrative structure further gains in complexity with the arrival of a mysterious stranger, who charms Ellen with captivating and thought-provoking stories that are thus subjected to a mise-en-abyme within the greater context of the novel. The stranger’s stories, virtually all of which are tied up with the eucalypts’ most ordinary characteristics (i.e. their common name or physical aspect), could be divided into two broad groups defined by the degree to which they depart from realism, as well as by the respective reactions they trigger in Ellen and, by extension, in the reader.

19On the one hand, a minority of stories falls within pre-existing literary categories that are generally deemed non-realist. For instance, one of the two stories prompted by E. barberi, or Barber’s Gum, is a fairy tale (supposedly taking place in Mauritania) in which a beautiful young woman is "held captive by an ogre" (Bail 1998, 174), who "slept with her hair in his teeth" (Bail 1998, 174-75, my italics), until she escapes with "a thief," who succeeded in "removing her hair one by one from the monster’s teeth" (Bail 1998, 175). The story inspired from E. symphyomyrtus, or Silver Princess, also features strong fairy-tale echoes since it revolves around "the Tower of Caramel," a Spanish monument housing "a miraculous mirror that could reflect anything that happened anywhere in the world" (Bail 1998, 208, my italics).

  • 6 In one of the desert stories linked with E. desertorum, for example, a "holy man [who] could raise (...)
  • 7 In the story triggered by E. bicostata, or Southern Blue Gum, an Arcimboldian ‘fruitologist’ reprod (...)
  • 8 In the story inspired by E. socialis (Red Mallee), which is as "double-trunked" (Bail 1998, 65) as (...)

20On the other hand, the majority of the stories subverts realism more subtly through a kind of literary funambulism: even though they occasionally contain non-realist elements,6 the stranger’s tales or fragments of tales carefully avoid unrealistic details where these could easily have been used,7 as a result of which most stories retain an unmistakably realistic character. However, the literally extraordinary nature of these stories and/or their uncanny atmosphere8 often blurs the boundary between reality and fantasy, so much so that Ellen regularly wonders whether the stranger is "making it up" (Bail 1998, 108 & 130; see also 197).

  • 9 When Ellen fell ill shortly after the stranger’s temporary disappearance, approximate story-tellers (...)

21The thinner the border between reality and fantasy, the greater the tension between these two poles: although even the fairy tales (see first category) draw parallels with Ellen’s real situation (the variant of Snow White symbolically warns her against letting go of her charming prince, while that of Bluebeard acts as a metaphor for her fettered life—and for the novel as a whole), they are told with such an irrational matter-of-factness that they fail to interpellate Ellen as much as the border-crossing stories do. Aware as he must be of the power reality exerts on Ellen as on most people (in this sense, Ellen may be seen to epitomise the contemporary hunger for reality), the stranger is subtle enough to present his hybrid stories as true accounts, either reported for the first time or heard before: in this way, the abovementioned desert story would be "a bare statement [he] once heard" (Bail 1998, 140) and one of his male protagonists is said to have "ended up in this very town, just over the khaki river, where his sister served at the counter" (Bail 1998, 207). For the reader’s special attention, the narrator himself takes the trouble to anchor the stories further into reality: "The careful way he told the [Georgina Bell] story suggested it had actually happene" (Bail 1998, 186, my italics). These subliminal interventions only increase Ellen’s bafflement, which mirrors the reader’s. Her obsession with the issue of narrative truth reaches its climax after the canariologist’s adventures: "What an awful story," she exclaims, "I think you’ve made it up" (Bail 1998,9 This accusation, which sounds like a charge against fiction, is all the more paradoxical since Ellen is usually bored by reality and those who strictly stick to it, like her father and his doppelganger, the methodical Mr Cave.

22Interestingly, however, Ellen’s posture changes radically towards the end of the novel: when the stranger sets out to tell her his final story, "the story of all stories, a story specifically to save her" from the dullness of Mr Cave, she regrets to see her favourite story-teller "launching into personal reminiscence, just like everybody else" (Bail 1998, 256);’but, when he continues "without the insistent Ί’" (Bail 1998, 257), she is gradually enraptured by his autobiographical story. While she previously suspected that the stranger’s stories "were dreamed up on the spot for her benefit" (Bail 1998, 256), Ellen now fully realises what this one, his own, owes to reality and memory: she "could see it was really about him, his story" (Bail 1998, 257). By the same token, the reader retrospectively construes the couple of intratextual references seeded throughout the narrative as so many signifiers of reality: the "countryman who managed to avoid both wars" (Bail 1998, 147) in one of the war stories induced by E. maculata, the Spotted Gum whose "mottled khaki-green trunk is a replica of the camouflage worn by the Australian army" (Bail 1998, 147, my italics), can indeed be identified as one of the "original" settlers who preceded Holland on the property, where he "built the most melancholy memorial to the dead, a private bridge for the exclusive use of sheep" (Bail 1998, 147). As for the young woman who exchanged brazen letters with her fiancé’s best mate, a soldier and would-be pub-holder called Brain, in the story of mateship (see Bail 1998, 143-53) triggered by E. exserta (Messmate), it turns out that she finally married the latter since a "Mrs Brain from the hotel" (Bail 1998, 242) later reappears in the narrator’s account. Therefore, there can be no doubt about the fact that the stranger relies on his memory, which he alludes to at times: right after telling the future Mrs Brain’s story, he invites Ellen to identify the real counterpart for his female character "by looking in at the country hotels here and there" (Bail 1998, 152); subsequently, he even humbly confesses that he deserves no credit for telling his stories, for "it was little more than a good memory" (Bail 1998, 231). It takes his last story to relativise the issue of narrative truth. By that stage, it simply does not matter anymore whether his tales are true or not, provided they have been subjected to the transformative process by which invention equals or supersedes memory: Ellen, like the reader, is no longer "interested in experience as such"—unless it is "giv[en] texture" (Bail 1998, 258). As he takes his cue from the trees’ common names, the unnamed stranger converts the familiar into the unfamiliar, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary: arguably, it is this defamiliarising process that is responsible for the uncanny atmosphere permeating many stories. As memory becomes story, the anonymous magician allows fantasy to spurt from reality: this sublimation of the real world ultimately reveals its magical dimension, leaving the audience spellbound.

23Another enigmatic story-teller, namely Thomas Pynchon, has recently included himself among those who regard this slight—but crucial—narrative shift as "one of the main purposes of fiction." In an online review of his forthcoming novel,10 he depicts Against the Day as follows: "If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two." Along the same lines, Bail offers a reflection pertaining to the nature of reality and the function of fiction, but weaves it directly into the stranger’s stories: in the pages of Eucalyptus, the process of story-telling emerges as a journey through a transformed reality, enabling would-be escapists both to withdraw into a protective shell where life is less ordinary and to open anew onto a not-so-familiar world that, once seen from a necessary distance, can be embraced more fully.

24As he gathers the stranger’s (pseudo-)realist narrative threads within the bounds of a novel, Bail’s flight from realism manifests itself in yet another way. The construction of a labyrinthine structure based on the multiplication of (pseudo)linear stories and on the superimposition of three narrative planes (self-conscious narrator, self-effacing narrator, story-telling characters) indeed points to a search for volume, which sheds light both on his "painterly awareness" (Jacobs 43) and on his willingness to move from two-dimensional realism to a three-dimensional space engaging with a "reality... too subtle for realism to catch" (Jacobs 43).

25Despite the various strategies designed to resist it, I do not think that "Eucalyptus banishes realism" (McKemmish 3) altogether, on the contrary: for all this patchwork of stories, which—taken individually—disrupt the linearity of Bail’s novel, narrative continuity is never completely undermined. As he constructs his complex mosaic of realistic fragments, Bail thus endows his plot with the "linear intricacy" (Bail 1981, 128) he praised in his monograph on the Australian painter Ian Fairweather, who never renounced his "preference for line" (Bail 1981, 29 & 113) but combined his various influences (European and Aboriginal, among others) in order both to create something entirely new and to achieve a genuine sense of Australianity. It is perhaps the same quality which makes Bail’s startlingly innovative tale "modern."

26If we were to put forward a moral that would encompass the multiple layers of Bail’s tale, we could borrow from Holland his mysteriously recurring motto: "nothing is one" (Bail 1998, 42, 84 & 241). Read in the light of this aphorism, the novel debunks several clichés. Firstly, it opposes the idea that any story can ever be "one," for there is no such thing as "pure" representation (hence the impossibility of realism) nor, for that matter, "pure" invention. In this respect, T. Inglis Moore appropriately reminds us that "all writing, even the most imaginative, is ultimately autobiographical" (Moore 4). Inevitable as they may be, literary distortions of reality can also prove fruitful: the attempt to isolate "the real" from "the fake" is thus doomed to be vain since it is precisely the oscillation (the friction) between these two poles that occasionally yields glimpses of truth.

27Secondly, Eucalyptus rejects the preconceived notion that either the Australian landscape or the national literature that it indirectly produces would be "one." Since Patrick White, other Australian writers like David Malouf have denounced the myth of "the Great Australian Emptiness":

In a continent as large as ours, there are many kinds of landscape, each of them typical of a particular region... the old idea that everywhere in Australia looks the same—the myth of the great Australian uniformity that was meant, I think, to confirm an Australian need—as if in this too the landscape was to be our model—for a conformity in the body social and politic. You need to believe in the idea of diversity, perhaps, before you develop an eye for it in the world about you. (Malouf 47; see also Jacobs 42)

28Shifting the emphasis onto biodiversity, Bail forces us to remember that the singular genus "eucalyptus" is a linguistic construct concealing myriad eucalypts: blinded as we were by the most frequent specimens like E. crebra (cf. supra), we simply could not see the wood for the trees. Turning as many trees as he can into metonyms for his country, Bail thus refutes in passing the widespread accusations of uniformity that are regularly directed at the Australian landscape and celebrates a land that is actually as dazzlingly diverse as the "trees [which] compose [it]" (Bail 1998, 16).

  • 11 We have seen that, in the book, the archetypal hard-luck stories are symbolically prompted by equal (...)

29As he multiplies the stories within his larger narrative framework, each prompted by a different tree, Bail’s corollary is that Australian literature has more to offer than the realistic hard-luck stories with which it has all too systematically been associated. Convinced as he is that this sheer dominance may have overshadowed more marginal literary practices, Bail undertakes to rewrite the land by drawing—like the stranger—"on diverse narrative traditions: oral and literary forms, fairytales, legends, literary and cautionary tales" (Jacobs 42). Recognising that the land has contributed to shaping realism,11 Bail includes it among the modes of discourse that his novel represents. In this sense, Eucalyptus should not only be regarded as an abstract manifesto for the recognition of plurality, but also as an actual step towards its narrative materialisation.

30Unlike Holden’s Performance, Eucalyptus thus thematises and textualises Bail’s formal concerns: whereas Holden’s Performance endorsed realism only to diverge from it more resolutely through parodic subversion, Eucalyptus somehow converges towards realism and acknowledges its value as a genre provided it is subjected to a transformative process, which the novel itself depends on. In this sense, Bail definitely problematises, complicates and ultimately transgresses the dichotomy which usually pits realism against experimental writing. As he cross-breeds various literary genres in search of a new form, Bail allows Eucalyptus to elude the easy categorisation that he criticises so harshly even as he gestures towards true literary hybridity.

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Ashcroft, Bill Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin ed. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London, New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.

Bail, Murray. Eucalyptus. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 1998; repr. London: Harvill Press, 1999.

Bail, Murray. Holden’s Performance. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988; repr. London: Harvill Press, 2000.

Bail, Murray. Ian Fairweather. Sydney & London: Bay Books, 1981.

Bishop, Alan J. "Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism." Race and Class, 32 (2). 1990; repr. (excerpt) in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin ed. 71-76, 1995.

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Daniel, Helen. Liars: Australian New Novelists. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988.

Dentith, Simon. Parody, London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.

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Jacobs, Lyn. "The ‘good oil’: eucalypts and Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus," Antipodes. 15(1), June, 40-46, 2001.

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McKemmish, Ian. Review of Eucalyptus, Meanjin. 57 (4), 828-831, 1998 (Academic Search Premier, <>, 1-3).

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Nash, Cristopher. World Postmodern Fiction: A Guide. White Plains, NY: Longman, 1993.

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1 Salman Rushdie, Satanic Verses, quoted in Dentith (183) who sees the phrase as a manifesto for the practice of parody in post-colonial countries.

2 In this regard, Bail may very well be referring us to the etymology of the word parody, the first mention of which dates back to Aristotle’s Poetics: in ancient Greece, the parodia was "a narrative poem, of moderate length, in the metre and vocabulary of epic poems, but treating a light, satirical, or mock-heroic subject" (Dentith 10).

3 To give but two examples: Holden is shown holding back the crowd’s momentum at the occasion of Elizabeth II’s 1956 Royal Visit in Sydney, or running truly inhuman distances in his capacity as a bodyguard protecting men of power.

4 Bakhtin’s phrase regarding ironic discourse is quoted in Dentith (64).

5 James Norton, review of Eucalyptus on <>. See also Donna Seaman, ‘Sleeping Beauty in Australia,’ review of Eucalyptus on <>

6 In one of the desert stories linked with E. desertorum, for example, a "holy man [who] could raise a dead person to life" (Bail 1998, 141) is mentioned in passing.

7 In the story triggered by E. bicostata, or Southern Blue Gum, an Arcimboldian ‘fruitologist’ reproduces the face of a woman he fancies in a fruit display, but leaves empty spaces for the eyes because he cannot find blue fruit.

8 In the story inspired by E. socialis (Red Mallee), which is as "double-trunked" (Bail 1998, 65) as the tree that has induced it, a ‘canariologist’ named Clem Sackler is devastated by the loss of his favourite bird, which has escaped through an open window. By some extraordinary stroke of luck, he spots it at last in a nearby house: manifestly attracted there by the sound of music, it has taken refuge on the owner’s shoulder, who is also a piano player. With a view to getting back his canary, the breeder starts taking piano lessons with the woman, called Heide Kirschner. Despite his own attraction for his teacher, Sackler does not lose sight of his main purpose and takes the bird back home—only to find it dead the next morning, (see Bail 1998, 192-97)

9 When Ellen fell ill shortly after the stranger’s temporary disappearance, approximate story-tellers followed one another near Ellen’s bed with the hope of bringing her back to life but only succeeded in spinning ineffectually factual or autobiographical stories.

10 See <>.

11 We have seen that, in the book, the archetypal hard-luck stories are symbolically prompted by equally dominant eucalypts, namely E. desertorum and E. crebra.

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Bibliographical reference

Marie Herbillon, « Linearity as Metadiscourse in Murray Bail’s Fiction », Caliban, 21 | 2007, 225-237.

Electronic reference

Marie Herbillon, « Linearity as Metadiscourse in Murray Bail’s Fiction », Caliban [Online], 21 | 2007, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 05 July 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Marie Herbillon

Aspirant du F.N.R.S., Université de Liège, Belgique

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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