Friday, March 05, 2010

The Playmaker

There's no doubt about it, when it comes to the world of books, not all of them are certified diamonds. I finally gave up on Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope. Its meandering pace, its lack of focus in the characters, who seemed to all be doing their own thing without relation to one another, and in particular, the dreary heroine whom we were supposed to forgive, I assume, all conspired to make me put the book down and not be in a hurry to pick it up again.

On the other hand, I picked a book off my shelves recently that I'd had for a while, and have read it fairly speedily. This was The Playmaker, by Thomas Kenneally, the Australian author. His books can be quite uneven, (I read, but loathed, The People's Train - one reviewer said it combines a fluency of narrative with woodenness of thought, and enjoyed a much less well-known book called A Victim of the Aurora). He's best known for Schindler's Ark, and tends to write books that include real historical people.

In spite of its readability, The Playmaker is odd. It's situated in Sydney when the place was still nothing more than a site for deported criminals and the Marines who guarded them. The Playmaker is one of the officers and has been 'commanded' to put on a play in celebration of the King's birthday (whether the King is actually still alive is something they have no knowledge of). He - Ralph - chooses Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, and casts a bunch of the felons (or 'lags' and 'she-lags' as they're know throughout the book) to play the parts. The book works its way backwards and forwards in time, starting later rather than earlier, and we see the play progressing, and the lives of the various 'immigrants' interacting with each other, and with the ab origines (as Kenneally insists on writing it, no doubt to give some authentic flavour to the look of the words.)

Ralph and his cast were all real people, and at the end of the book Kenneally tells what happened to each one...as far as he's able to. Some of them led extraordinary lives after we leave them.

Kenneally is a brilliant researcher (or has brilliant researchers working for him). He's able to weave together historical reality and fictional episodes with a good deal of skill, and to be imaginative when it comes to filling in the gaps, or recreating the period, or adding to what little is known. However, I'm not sure that he's a great storyteller, at least in terms of structuring his books. As I've posted on more than a few occasions, storytelling structure and I are not the best of bedfellows. Nevertheless I can still see when a book hasn't hit the mark in terms of structure, even though I'm not always able to put my finger on what would have worked better.

The Playmaker's climax is weak, for instance. After a long haul through the book, the two intersecting events that mark the end of it don't gel. They're just annoying in the way they're put together. The climax should be the fact that the play has got off the ground and has hit the mark with its audience. But Kenneally chooses to add in the capture of one of the lags who has been on the run, and has been stealing food from the community. He's brought into the barracks where the play is being presented and his presence interrupts the whole mood, not only of the play, but of the book. As does the unexpected death of one of the other characters.

Equally, the shifting back and forth in time doesn't really seem to contribute greatly to the impetus of the book, although it's less of a flaw than the seemingly-botched climax. (The People's Train is infinitely worse - it has no climax whatsoever.)

Presumably it was intentional that the book should be brutal in its descriptions: not only of the various hangings and beatings that take place (not just of lags, but of criminal Marines as well), but also of the sexual encounters most of the characters have at some point. Sex pervades the book; I thought of putting it aside more than once, because of the way everything is coloured by sex. There are occasional oddities: for example, when a supply ship finally arrives, Kenneally tells us that a sudden storm strikes it as it enters the harbour. This is done in about one sentence, and then things carry on as though this had really made little difference to the crew or the people waiting for the supplies.

In spite of all the above, there are some great passages of writing in the book. The expedition to find the aborigines in order to get a cure for one of their number who has fallen sick is strikingly done, and the way in which Ralph experiences his increasing sense of creating something that comes alive through his criminal cast is also good.

Many years ago I read Kenneally's Three Cheers for the Paraclete, a book that's a lot less turgid than some of his later work (Wikipedia describes it as a comic novel), and which was generally a lot more enjoyable. His later books, however, seem to thrive on frequent obscurities that leave the reader struggling. Maybe it's a result of winning the Man Booker prize once too often.
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