Theodora Galanis reviews Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright
by Alexis Wright
Reviewed by THEODORA GALANIS
‘Listen!’ cries an oracle. ‘Look proper way. Carefully. See detail, if you want to see properly.’ (p.368).
This instruction arrives almost halfway through Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy, opening the chapter titled, ‘Goddess of Scales’.
Before I had reached this page, I was having doubts about writing this review. Praiseworthy is a text that rightfully challenges the plucky critic who thinks they can take it on in a thousand words. One of the novel’s narrators pre-empts my concern: why risk sounding like ‘a little academic who thought he knew it all’? (p.368).
The call to ‘listen’ and ‘see detail’, however, felt like a generous invitation. It prompted to me think about how I had been reading this novel – or rather, how the novel had been asking to be read.
Following the oracle’s imperative, this review is in part a reflection on what Praiseworthy has to tell us about a slow reading practice and why it matters.
Praiseworthy is set in a fictional town of the same name somewhere in dust storm smothered country up in the north of Australia. This story begins ‘once upon a’ good for some and bad for others time: the dreaded present of the Anthropocene, of global warming and global pandemic, of hate speech and social media, of Intervention violence and Closing the Gap talk.
Here, under the ‘sulky’ orange haze, we meet the Steel family. The father, Cause Man, is a pain in the ‘ass’ entrepreneur who is terrified about global warming. He dreams up a plan to make an international fossil-fuel-free transport conglomerate fuelled off the backs of feral donkeys. His wife, Dance, thinks this is a load of bulldust. She’s a sensible woman who is better off spending her time flitter fluttering with the moths and butterflies than tidying up after his mess. They have two children, the aspiring boxer and in-love eldest son, Aboriginal Sovereignty, and his younger ratbag brother, Tommyhawk.
Praiseworthy stages the interconnected journeys of these characters as they each embark on a quest of sorts: Cause is looking for the perfect platinum donkey to be the ‘mask-head’ of his company, Dance traces her ancestral links to China, Tommyhawk begs for a one-way ticket to Canberra, and Aboriginal Sovereignty looks for, well, maybe somewhere to offer up his love.
Across the breadth of her oeuvre, including titles like Plains of Promise (1997) and The Swan Book (2014), Wright demonstrates a commitment to exploring what it is to write an ‘Aboriginal sovereignty of the imagination’. In her essay ‘On Writing Carpentaria’, she describes this as:
Just such a story as we might tell in our story place. Something to grow the land perhaps. Or, to visit the future.
In Praiseworthy, questions surrounding sovereignty of the imagination are focalised through the Steel family’s eldest son. We learn early on that he commits suicide by walking into the sea. This event embroils the people of Praiseworthy in a search of their own. Variously motivated, all kinds of folk from ghostly-looking fishermen to pandanus-fanning power ladies to fanatical church goers sift through the sand in search of his life. Even the anthropologist-cum-copper called Maximum Security combs the beach for evidence.
Aboriginal Sovereignty’s haunted presence is the ‘mystery death thing’ that percolates through the novel(p.368). Held in the arms of the ‘giant sea lady’, his story is always filtered through her tidal movements which wash in and out of narrative focus. Each time I felt myself sucked away from the drought-stricken dust country and pulled into the lap of the sea, I returned to the question of his absence a little differently. Why did he die? Or, did he really die?
The epic size of Praiseworthy poses a direct challenge to the tik-tocking attention spans of iPhone-loving brains like Tommyhawk’s. The writing demands sustained focus on a sentence as it sprawls over four, five, six lines. The reader is asked to consider a single image or colour for minutes on end, like the meditation on the colour grey that spans some seventeen pages.
As is characteristic of Wright’s rhythm, such wondrously long passages are often punctuated with an exclamation. My favourites include, ‘So!’, ‘Well!’, ‘But!’, ‘Sovereignty!’, ‘Bang!’ ‘Yep!’, ‘Whatever!’, ‘Sea!’(pp.290, 301, 307, 317, 334). These percussive beats interrupt the hypnotic effect of the sounds that preceded it, offering a moment to pause and reflect. Or to switch gears and wake up a bit. It almost feels like a little clip around the ears: Hey! You still listening?
Oracles are called to ‘speak up’ at the beginning of each chapter, marking the oral storytelling traditions which have been fused into Wright’s earlier takes on the epic form (p.164). The multiple narrators each shape the story with their own inflections and points of emphasis. There is no universalising voice in Praiseworthy. But, how could there be? These oracles are attempting to fathom ‘real quests of importance’ about ‘the interconnectedness of survival simultaneously occurring throughout the cherished lands of traditional country’(p.96). In a story of this size, a single perspective will simply not suffice. A narrator remarks:
“How could one person become so worthy of being – the epic? Of being that special? Were the storytellers too lazy these days to look further into the human abyss, or too unimaginative to be bothered to create a more diverse catalogue of stories?”(p.25)
It is this ambition – to tune in to the several overlapping, and sometimes contradictory, stories of country – that Praiseworthy strives towards. Cause Man Steel obsessively concerns himself with problems on a planetary scale (so much so that he picks up the nicknames ‘Planet’ and ‘Global Warming’). In contrast, it is Dance who often brings the focus back to the smaller details. As moth woman, the ‘moth-er’, she has gift for tuning into the inaudible frequencies of insect life. She listens to ‘two ants arguing for hours over a crumb of bread’ and a ‘far-off moth or butterfly splashing into the ocean’. Elsewhere, she is described ‘reading the unfathomable or innumerable messages held in the billions of microscopic scales stacked like sets of roof tiles on the wings of the moth’. The use of the word ‘scale’ here is most intriguing, for its relation to ideas of measurement, weight, size, shifts, balance, proportion, and too of skin, reptilian, insect and piscine.
The sliding movement between scales of stories is something Wright deftly handles in Praiseworthy. The locus of the narrative continually shifts from the inaudible and invisible stories, the hidden-beneath-your-shoe stories or the hiding-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea stories, to the grand master stories, the atmospheric stories, the old as time stories. Take this sentence, for example, as a small instantiation of the kind of scaling effect that characterises the broader narrative form:
Country always tells its people that there are endless ways of reading its world, depending on whether you are a moth, a butterfly, a dragonfly, a mountain chain, the sea, a river, moon, or stars, or the atmosphere itself.(p535)
From the tiny to the cosmic, the elements are held together in mutual significance to the epic story of country.
The interplay between local and planetary forces is a source of great energy in the text. There is an emphasis on the importance of the local, and yet an attention to what occurs elsewhere. Epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter reflect this planetary focus, with quotes drawn from the Waanyi Dictionary to Jorge Luis Borges to former Hong Kong politician, Alvin Yeung. These wide-reaching references, alongside others scattered throughout the prose, place Wright’s work within global circuits and planetary frames.
Against the scarcity logic defining so much talk about the Anthropocene, in Praiseworthy Wright offers stylistic abundance in such a way that could be characterised as, quoting the novel, ‘over-imagined and overgrown’(p.316). The sheer poetic density is a defiant protest against a contemporary compulsion toward speed, minimalism, and efficiency.
Praiseworthy swirls over itself again and again. In the first chapter, we are introduced to many of the narrative strands that Wright picks up on at later stages – albeit with a different voice, from a different vantage point. As if whirling through an oceanic gyre or a cyclonic wind current, readers are repeatedly drawn back into almost-familiar scenes to re-witness characters in the ongoing negotiation of life in and beyond the hazy town.
Despite its energetic rhythms, in moments it can feel as if you’re moving slowly through Praiseworthy. It really did take me quite some time to read this book. That’s not just because it’s big – though, mind you, everyone who’s seen me carrying it around has commented on its size (Bloody hell! That’s a doorstopper, said the bus driver yesterday).
I think the effect of moving slowly is kind of the point. The wise ‘extinction-less’ elders explain the significance of this:
With old-world thinking, you have to reach down into the depths of time to raise it to the surface and compete with the faster-than-thought new world twaddle dazzle skimming across the skin of the spirit. Well!(p.291)
Old-world thinking doesn’t happen in a jiffy. And in Praiseworthy this is not simply advocated through certain voices but materialised at the level of form: the long sentences, the swirling structure, the dense imagery and the number of pages all ask readers to slow down. To go back and look properly. To see detail. When moving carefully through Praiseworthy, we notice things that may otherwise pass us by in a blink.
In paying attention to the formal qualities of Praiseworthy, I have not intended to sidestep the politics of the novel. Rather, I posit slow reading as a practice that further attunes us to the complexities and violences of the colonial condition. Slow reading leaves space and time to do the deep, hard work of listening. Slow reading is a politics. Praiseworthy calls readers to take part.
Wright, Alexis. Praiseworthy. Giramondo, 2023.
—. ‘On Writing Carpentaria’, Indigenous Transnationalism: Essays on Carpentaria, edited by Lynda Ng, Giramondo Publishing Company, 2018, pp.217-232.
THEODORA GALANIS is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide. She researches oceanic imaginaries in contemporary Australian literature. Her project forms part of the Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative, ‘Between Indian and Pacific Oceans: Reframing Australian Literatures’.