The author of this blog has recently been reading Fredy Neptune by Les Murray, Australian’s preeminent poet, winner of heaps of awards. Fredy Neptune is a novel in verse. I sat down with the author of this blog to ask him some questions about his experience reading the book during a lunch break where we both work. The full transcript follows
Q: Hey! How’s it going? Or should I say, G’day mate!
A: Shut up. Stop that right now or else I’m leaving.
Q: Sorry. I thought it would be appropriate.
Q: Well, should we begin?
A: Yes, let’s.
Q: Alright, so how did you first hear about this book? And more importantly, what did you think going in, since it claims to be a rare & ambitious hybrid of genres: a poetry novel.
A: I recently met a guy and became friends with him, but the first thing he did when we met was ask me if I knew Les Murray or the book Fredy Neptune. Strong recommendation when that’s your first impression. I answered no to both questions, by the way. To answer the second question, though, I see what you’re getting at but it didn’t seem like the hybrid part of your description would be the challenge. Rather, this book is stinkin’ huge. It’s 255 pp. and every page has five stanzas of eight lines.
Q: That’s a lot of text!
A: So, that was the real challenge of this book. In fact, I still haven’t finished.
Q: What?! C’mon! Are you serious? I told you that this needed to be finished like a week ago. You knew I was going to write this piece and now you’re telling me you haven’t even finished the book?
A: Sorry. I can still tell you…
Q: I mean, what’s the point? How am I supposed to get anything from this conversation if it’s only filled with half-measures? And that’s just on your side. So, it’s really a quarter measure.
A: No, really, I’d love to tell you about this book so far. I mean, the only thing that’s going to change at this point is the plot. I’m 2/5ths of the way through, which is already over a hundred pages, which is plenty of material to go on. He never changes form and, like I said, the only thing I don’t know yet is what happens – I feel like I already have a good sense for what’s going on in the book.
Q: Oh really? Fine. What’s ‘going on’ then?
A: Well, basically, you have this Australian-German grifter. Is that the right word? Hang on. Let me look it up.
A: Huh. Not quite, but also not too far off the mark. Anyway, so this Australian-German young kid, Friedrich Boettcher, who starts working on ships then gets forced to serve for the Krauts…
Q: Woah! Totally offensive.
A: Huh. Yeah, sorry. This is a big deal in the book actually. In fact it was this type of language appropriation and discourse that demonstrated that this book was a novel. But I’ll get to that later. Anyway, Freddy gets consigned by the Germans, pardon, and finds himself in the middle of WWI battles in the Middle East. In fact, most of the first book is all set in the middle East. In the first few pages, Fredy sees the Germans burn a bunch of Armenian women alive and his reaction is to get leprosy and then lose all feeling in his body.
A: He reacts to seeing the Armenian women burnt alive by contracting leprosy, healing from it, but losing his faculty of touch.
A: Yeah! This happens in all of 8 pages. It’s insane. Here: listen.
A: So, anyway, he goes around in the Middle East and to Rio and all over trying to catch a ride home – he’s a lot like Odysseus – and hiding from the cops or the Germans or the anti-Germans because he doesn’t fit in either category and his affliction gets him into a lot of queer situations.
Q: How do you say queer?
A: In this way: I mean imagine if you did not have the sense of touch and people around you during WWI did have the sense of touch.
Q: I see.
A: The whole first book, The Middle Sea, is about his pinballing around getting into and out of trouble before finally getting home. Then in the second book, Barking at Thunder, which I’ve read, has him at home, looking for his mother, who sold their farm because their family had become pariahs on account of them having German heritage – see this is what I meant earlier. This book has a laser trained on the social currency of hate, usually coined in words and names. For instance, Freddy’s name (i.e., identity) becomes different currency at different times used by him and against him: rarely does he ever use the name Boettcher. Instead it’s Beecher, Butcher, Boytcher (“I showed him my paybook. Boytcher? Isn’t that German” ), Beeching, Boettischer, Beitcher, Beotisher, Belcher, Blucher, Bo’sher, Boatcher, and finally, Neptune, great god of the sea, enemy of Odysseus (man of many turns, mind you, like names): “How about Freddy Neptune?/You work below the line” (100). He’s more Proteus than Neptune, though. But to get back to the point, you don’t start off a novel with a hate-crime like burning a group of Armenian women alive and not concern yourself with hate and injustice for the rest of the book. So, Les Murray doesn’t.
Fredy (or Freddy) is a barometer of justice and right action, which isn’t to say he acts rightly all the time, but his sense of it is strictly tied to his condition. He knows that an honest word, especially about his condition, will at different times worsen or heal it. Or this event:
I was in Osnabrück outside the Peace Hall this Spring morning
eyeing a couple of other land-rakers like me
and a pretty girl going by with an attaché case,
filling in, I dare say, for some pen-pusher off at the war.
One of the drifters suddenly jumped and tore
the briefcase off her. Really. Because her arm came off too.
I blinked. It was real. She screamed. The veins and muscles
attaching the arm were leather straps. And the thief,
well he was hopeless. He leant his head against the wall
with the case at his feet, still chained to that wooden arm
and the crowd running up – the other bloke had cleared.
The girl was crying, with the sleeve torn off her blouse
and I was the one nearest. I was so stupid-shy,
she was stretching out her hand, her live real hand -
and what do I do but put her wooden arm in it?
If I had got that right, everything would have been different. (8)
A: Yeah. So that’s what I mean by being a barometer of right-action, right-living.
Q: So what happens after he gets home?
A: Well, it’s a lot of the same, he wanders on the land like he does the sea, getting into trouble here and there, but it is definitely a variation on a theme. In the same sense that the “same” thing happens in both books (and I imagine at least in the third book), “nothing” happens in Joyce’s Ulysses.
Q: What does happen in Ulysses? Seriously!
A: Not now, man.
Q: Fine. Can you explain the idea of the “Novel in Verse”? Does it work here? Well, I guess what I mean is, is it actually a novel? And then, a follow-up question: is it successful as a genre? That is, can people get on board with it? Will it be a form that is embraced by readers and authors?
A: Clown question, bro.
Q: What do you mean? I’m serious.
A: I don’t have to explain the “Novel in Verse.” It’s self-explanatory.
Q: What about the other questions, you know, does it work…is it true?
A: OK. Fine. I’ll bite. What makes this a novel is not length or plot because those things don’t make a novel.
The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.
Q: Who said that?
Q: I don’t buy it.
A: What do you got?
Q: I don’t “got” anything. But that doesn’t sound like a novel to me. What about plot and character?
A: Well, someone has to be saying things and have occasion for saying the things they say, so plot and character are assumed.
Q: But –
A: Bakhtin really hits his stride talking about the novel by placing the overlapping systems of diverse speech in common areas – for instance, markets and courthouses or road-side stops. Or even ship decks, shipyards, circus tents, middle-of-the-street, post-office, movie lobbies, and dining room tables in Fredy Neptune.
Q: I just don’t –
A: Moreover, Bakhtin also traces the genealogy of the novel to the grotesqueness of Menippean satire and to the larger-than-life/disproportionate exaggeration that draws our focus to the abundant, unfetterable overflow of tongues.
Q: HOW IS THAT WHAT A NOVEL IS?
A: Easy. Name a novel.
Q: The Hunger Games.
A: OK. Whatever. The diversity of language systems in this book is not great (which might help establish its complexity on an objective level and then we can make value judgments on it). Basically, you have hybrid Greek and Latin proper names that define the spaces and categorize them into easy understandables: good/bad. For instance, Katniss’ name is non-Greco-Roman at least, refers to a tuber whose Latin name is Sagitta, which means arrow. She’s a heteroglossic character. Wham bam.
Nobody properly speaks in these languages during the book so you don’t have a true heteroglossia (Bakhtin’s terming of the condition of over-abundant language systems), but nevertheless, the author “artistically organized” the Greek and Latin/Anglo-Saxon linguistic elements, as well as diverse social speech types (consider the different ways of talking that Haymitch and Effee Trinket in the dining car [social gathering]). So, holds up. Satisfied?
Q: I guess. I’m going to have to think about it.
A: The point is that this approach to the novel illuminates how Fredy Neptune is novelistic. Murray populates the entire story with overlapping voices that blur into each other; sometimes you don’t know who’s saying what and it becomes noisy like a market square and you can’t hear the person you’re trying to listen to for all the voices. This is a novelistic trope and Murray masterfully uses it.
The other novel in verse that I’ve read, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, is not. Hers really is more like a cycle of poems, even an epic. Actually, it’s a very good epic. But to call it a novel is to miss the mark. If I remember correctly, Red stands on the quality of line and the strength of blending its characters’ mythic and personal aspects, like taking a gemstone and quickly turning it in the light to compose the refraction into a single image. But, she doesn’t do that through dialogue or discourse. It happens mostly through soul-description and soliloquy. I’d have to go back to confirm this suspicion, but that’s what I remember.
Q: But back to Fredy. What is it like reading this book? You mentioned its city of voices is confusing.
A: Well, it is, but that’s clearly intentional. The experience of reading is very different from reading a novel, which also makes me doubt calling it a novel. I don’t re-read many sentences in the novels I like to read but I often have to go back and read some passages, sometimes a whole page, to resituate myself in Fredy. But that’s maybe a condition of this hybrid genre, since all verse demands this type of repetitive experience. Even “The Red Wheelbarrow” needs to be re-read and re-read.
Q: Les Murray is a Catholic poet. I bet you get a kick out of that.
A: Well, I didn’t realize this until I read it in a biography. There’s nothing obstinately Catholic about Fredy Neptune in what I’ve read so far.
Q: What do you mean “obstinately Catholic“?
A: I mean that Fredy’s participation with people so far is an exercise in natural virtue, especially jurisprudence and practical wisdom. However, there’s this great conversation that goes:
You have God? – Eh? Pardon? – You Christian, have religous? –
Well, yes. – You have God a little and not trust Him?
That is Christian.
That’s about how it feels when I’m revolving around the Sun, the Trinity, and there’s a dark side not facing it. Which is all the time, right? There’s always a part of a planet that doesn’t face the light. I don’t know if that’s particularly Catholic, but I do think Catholicism acknowledges that a little more, at least historically, and has more room for that to be a fact of the experience of having faith instead of trying to spin the globe to keep it in the light all the time.
Q: So, the book just feels Catholic?
A: No, not really. It just feels like it’s comprehending its own experience honestly and not-exclusively. That is, it’s letting everyone have a voice, even if it’s not a voice we want to savor or hear. For instance, Fredy’s step-dad is a German nationalist who is probably still harboring some Nazi sentiments and he’s not really holding back his opinion that the Fatherland is superior. His exclusive, borderline hateful, ethos gets fair play – it’s a location for conflict, but only because it has the opportunity to be heard and that conflict helps the maturation of the work. In a way, that’s very Catholic to me. The Church is a location for conflict. It’s supposed to be. The Church matures through conflict and it’s pretty clear from history that mankind matures specifically through its conflicts with the Church.
Q: What do you think is going to happen in the book?
A: Well, right now, Fredy’s about to go to Hollywood, which I’m excited about. I bet he’s going to get into some bigger trouble, though – he’s just been hired by a sketchy Australian politician to go find a guy in Kentucky (also excited about this) and bring him back to Australia. I don’t see that going very well. He left his girl and his son, so that’s gotta be sorted out, I predict for the better. And finally, he’s gotta get his non-feeling sorted out, which I think will happen, since the last book is called ‘Lazarus Unstuck.’
Q: Oh, I forgot to ask, how Australian is this book? You have some experience with Australia so talk about that.
A: That’s a crappy question. A little broad.
Q: Well, you didn’t finish the book.
A: Fair. Well, I don’t really know how to answer you. What I admire about Australian English is the low-form, how relaxed it can be, how fast people can talk and gaff and switch between them. It’s something I don’t recognize in English English or American English. Australian slang and Australian idiom is hard to separate and that’s a strength. Murray is all over that.
Murray’s Australia in Fredy is largely blue collar and it’s also very racist. The people of Australia, having lost nearly an entire generation at Gallipoli are shoring up their ethnic identity in a gesture as exclusive as the Aryan mistake. So, Murray’s Australia is in fact just like everywhere else in that way and that’s his point of harping on it: “Guess what everybody, we’re all idiots and can’t think straight when it comes to ethnicity.”
The marvel is that he can generate a sense of place not through description of place but through activity of humans. Details are there to give you an atmospheric condition, but really, for Murray, places are defined by what people do there. Amazing.
Q: Should everybody read this book?
A: Yes? No? I don’t know. Really. Does everyone have the patience for this book? I don’t even have the patience for this book and I love it so far. How can I say? Is it worth reading, yes! Does that mean everyone should read it? I don’t think so.
EDIT: Clarification needs to be made. I misread the description of burning the Armenian women. The Germans did not burn these women – the event Fredy witnesses was part of the Armenian Genocide. Sorry!