Politics in literature: N by John A Scott

I’ve been meaning to stop reviewing on Goodreads and start reviewing over here instead (if you can call it reviewing: I never write more than a few paragraphs), so here’s my first attempt.

9781921556203N by John A Scott is an Australian novel, released last year and since shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (announced on Wednesday). It’s also part of my #TBR20 reading list. Speaking of which, that’s all about to go out the window: I’m currently at Varuna working on a book and they have so many books here I’ve been wanting to read. So let me off the hook while I get through Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, Nicole Smith’s Sideshow, Alison Croggon’s Navigatio and Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music (and if I still have time, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House). And so, to N.

I’ll be surprised if I read a new release I like better this year. N is an extraordinary, ambitious and very long effort (600 pages plus, in tincy print). The story opens at a Cabinet meeting: ministers are debating what to do with a boat-load of refugee children in an unseaworthy vessel, moored off Fremantle. For political expediency they decide to send it back out to sea to sink.

It’s 1941, and Australia is about to become a fascist police state sharing its land and power with the invading Japanese army. Artists, intellectuals and Aboriginal people are sent to internment camps; the Australian people become suspicious of independent thought; torture of dissidents and suppression of free media become common-place.

The novel follows many different characters – an artist’s wife whose world has fallen apart, a public servant unwittingly administering the rise of fascism, a playwright who has begun to see visions, a war artist, a guerrilla Australian solider, a ghost writer with far-right dreams of immortality. There is a love story, a mystery story, strange and fantastical happenings, brilliant rewritings of Australian history and myth (including a restaging of the invasion of Gallipoli held at the MCG which pleasingly mirrored something I wrote in my own novel) and, in the end, a plea for us to take a bloody hard look at ourselves and the kind of country we’re creating.

Maybe it was because I’d just read this article about the treatment of asylum seekers, but at the end of N I burst into tears. What terrible things we are blithely allowing to happen.

I thought this review from the Saturday Paper was very interesting: the reviewer found the book unmoving, and compared it unfavourably to The Narrow Road to the Deep North. As I was reading N and being horrified and moved by eerie similarities to modern Australia, I thought “god I wish The Narrow Road to the Deep North had been more like this” (though i do agree some of Scott’s characters were pretty caricaturey, and I could have done without the heavy-handed afterword, but anyway). Keep in mind I think Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest are among the best books ever written, and that I love books such as Cold Light which are written from a bureaucrat’s perspective, and make of that what you will.

Here’s another much more in-depth review from The Sydney Review of Books.


13 thoughts on “Politics in literature: N by John A Scott

      1. I remember a review of Scott’s work by Fay Zwicky who asked (paraphrasing), ‘Why take what’s making you miserable and rub your readers’ noses in it?’ I think she got that wrong on two counts. Writing can help us cope with the unbearable, as can reading work that tells the truth of how things are. I don’t know whether this sentiment relates to how N has polarised readers, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

      2. And perhaps with N too it’s that there is a great deal going on, and some of it is very weird, and he messes around with styles and gets into all kinds of fantastical notions. I gather lots of people like to read books which parallel real life, and a book like this is going to annoy them. I prefer giant experiments, even failed ones.

  1. It sounds fascinating! I had been a bit put off by how long it was, but this review makes me intrigued. I think it’s true (and this is more to do with the comments above) that Australian critics/reviewers seem, on the whole, uncomfortable with the fantastic in works in/about Australia (whereas they seem to accept such ‘play’ if it’s in works by, say, David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood).

    I really didn’t like the RF book. So it will be interesting to see if I have a similar response when (if!) I get around to reading this book. 🙂

  2. Yes, reviews here instead of Goodreads (sorry Goodreads) – N sounds right up my alley/Australian Writers challenge, as long as I get through my TBR pile…meanwhile Varuna! Do gIve us a review on that…can’t believe I know someone at Varuna!

  3. Love your review of this book, and yes, the review at The Saturday Paper was inane.
    N is a big, beautiful, passionate book that makes us take a long hard look at ourselves, and it’s a jolly good read. (Even now, months after reading it, those unforgettable scenes underground make me feel claustrophobic!)
    Have fun at Varuna, but work hard please, I want another novel to read, I want another character to make my heart ache with compassion:)

      1. Varuna is a brilliant place, I have dropped hints to my readers that they should do as I do and send a supportive cheque every now and again, I hope they do.
        Tell you what, you write the Varuna piece, I’ll reblog it on mine and we’ll both ask our readers to donate. Every little helps.

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