Dixon, Robert, ed. The Novels of Alex Miller: An Introduction. 1st ed. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2102. Print.
Until Robert Dixon’s book appeared in 2012, what critical work there was on Alex Miller was relatively sparse, and even though select novels were explored (mainly “The Ancestor Game” ) not until this publication has his writing been treated as a body of work—and it is this aspect in particular that makes “The Novels of Alex Miller: an introduction” such a fascinating read. Any form that requires the title “body” necessarily implies a site for a myriad of interconnecting parts, many of which appear quite unlike each other when taken as disparate entities. In recognition of this, Dixon’s book collects not only critical essays (and within the critical essays there is a pleasing range of writing voices and diverse theoretical concerns) but also a transcript of a panel session with the real-life characters on whom Miller based his characters and story in “Journey to the Stone Country” and “Landscape of Farewell.” There is also a reflective, meta-narrative piece by Miller himself and a piece of philosophical contemplation by Raimond Gaita. Placed together in one volume, the effect is indeed of a body of work—background, imaginative responses, abstraction and extemporizing, and the powerful human interest of discovering how “Journey to the Stone Country” has been read by miners, Aborigines, and county Queensland families alike.
But a body is not just a sum of its parts, it includes threads of connection, and motifs that appear across the many different forms the body takes. Thus it is with Dixon’s work, and by the end of the book I was left with several key themes that emerged across the majority of the readings.
Dixon writes that “Miller’s conviction that the modern artist is an exile in his own country” and that his work involves the exploration of the “globalizing forces of colonialism, war and commerce” (Dixon 2012, 9). Miller, although writing predominantly within a specifically Australian context, by tackling the above themes also investigates issues that apply to the international community, and particularly to industrialized nations such as the USA. Miller holds a narrative balance between the close world of individuals and the larger issues in (post)colonialism in his addressing of the “…series of associations between the colonist, the invader, the parasite and the artist” (10).
Miller himself writes in the opening chapter that “memoir does not offer us a sure means for contacting the deeper dualities of the self. For this journey to the heart of darkness, fiction is a more certain, if more oblique, way” (Miller 29). This is a telling quote, and one that suggests some of the innate drama, and ethical issues, at the heart of Miller’s body of work, and maybe why he both troubles people and also speaks for many of them. Firstly, the journey he refers to is essentially an egotistical one, or at the least, self-motivated and with self-fulfillment as its desired outcome, “Why did I believe, and why do I still believe, that this story was mine? What made it mine?” (Miller, as cited in Dixon 2012, 5). It is a quest in the Jungian sense, of dealing with and finally piecing together the fragmented parts of ourselves to come to a whole. Such a quest is, in essence, about me. But in discovering and expressing the real me, I pretend to be someone else, in fact I actually craft and tell the story of this someone else. And to do this, I enter—and must enter—deeply into their world, or as Dixon writes, “the invader, as we have seen in Miller’s earlier novels, is always deeply involved with those whose territory he enters” (16). Their story becomes a proxy for my own, a way to realize my own fulfillment, and the “artist [becomes] both an observer and … an invader of the homeland of the other” (11).
And this is where a profound ethical dilemma comes in; because whose stories are chosen to fulfill this quest, this seeking-for-self? The stories chosen by Miller are those of the marginalized, the displaced, the disenfranchised—most notably immigrants, indigenous people, and women (not necessary in that order). So a question immediately arises, and this is one which remains a question (or, as Dixon positively phrases it, an “invitation”) at the close of the book: does this appropriation of story act as transformative and empowering for the chosen proxy? Or in being used as the mask for the narrator, are these “others” somehow colonized and reframed as merely a coating for the teller’s own journey? Is their agency sacrificed to the agency of the storyteller?
Miller talks about this journey to the heart of the self as a journey to “the heart of darkness” and one can only read this in terms of a direct and obvious reference to Conrad. The darkness at the heart of Conrad’s novel of that name was the hidden centre of the “othered” African continent, a centre where the imagined core of African culture—with all its twin colonial fantasies of violent cannibalism and exotic submission to the conqueror—was combined in a hellish depiction of what might be seen as the heart of colonialism. This horror was connected to blackness, therefore perpetuating age-old racist ideology, but there is a twist in Conrad’s depiction of blackness as evil, in that the darkness in this case also illustrates the unfettered fulfillment of Imperialism. That this horror is suggested as what we will find when we get to the centre of ourselves, begs the question as to whether we are all (and does the ‘we’ apply to white people, or all people?) at heart those who would—given the “right” combination of events and circumstance—annex the power of others to support our own fantasies of total control and colonial power.
What is both wonderful in a literary sense, and perhaps frightening also, is that as Miller dons the mask to explore his own story, he also beautifully and with deep empathy tells the story of those who, by Miller’s very act of storytelling, are kept from sharing their own story in their own voice. Or are they? Is their voice perhaps shared all the more effectively because of the very act of being taken and reworked in a new way, for a predominantly white audience? Miller’s work is filled with these ambivalences, consistently rendered with a respectful and clear appreciation for the active mines embedded in this landscape of historical (and current) experience.
Miller’s novels form a body of work rife with powerful challenges to the ethics of being an artist and a white Australian, but far from thinking that these concerns are a negative aspect, it is this very exploration of the complexities and wounds that will hopefully give rise to continued, and let us hope productive and potentially healing, conversations about race, invasion and how to move forwards as a country that was founded on war and fragmentation. Dixon quotes writer Shameem Black in articulating Miller’s importance as a writer, in that he asserts Miller is “inviting readers to question assumptions about identity and imaginative projection, and exploring the ethics of representation” (Black, as cited in Dixon 2012, 26).
Robert Dixon has assembled an intriguing, challenging and extremely readable collection of meditations on the considerable breadth of work by Alex Miller, and I would recommend it highly as a way to explore not only the context for Miller’s own writing, but literary and socio-historical concerns of the current Zeitgeist in Australian literature as a whole.