Academic journal article Antipodes

"A World of . . . Risk, Passion, Intensity, and Tragedy": The Post-9/11 Australian Novel

Academic journal article Antipodes

"A World of . . . Risk, Passion, Intensity, and Tragedy": The Post-9/11 Australian Novel

Article excerpt

TERRORISTS SEIZE CONTROL OF AN AIR FRANCE JETLINER filled with international passengers, sparing the children but eliminating the adults. A group of ten is given a fleeting hope as they become bargaining chips in the terrorists' effort to have their political demands met. It is only a fleeting hope, however, as no government will negotiate. Years later the child-turned-adult survivors lead lives circumscribed by fear - unable to dispel a paranoid view of the world, a view which holds that their presence in the airplane was no accident, a vision that sees threats everywhere to their attempts to lead stable lives.

The above scenario describes the major narrative line of Janette Turner Hospital's 2003 novel, Due Preparations for the Phgue. Hospital taps into the defining, identifying modes of the first decade of the twenty-first century: the terrorist as the ubiquitous source and focus of fear. Though terrorists have claimed a role on the world stage at least since the late 1950s- think of Algiers, of Munich, of Belfast and Beirut the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, the story behind the destruction, and the resulting casualties pushed the terrorist and terrorism to the center of public consciousness. Airports large and small adopted strict security measures; governments suspended individual rights as a means of aborting terrorist plots; national security alerts cautioned citizens against ignoring the potential threat lurking behind the apparently ordinary. Australia, half a world away from the fallen Towers, vigorously took up the war on terror. The terrorist was no longer the remote figure featured briefly in a news broadcast; he might be the bloke next door.

Hospital's novel is not particularly Australian, although an Australian woman is among the ten given a temporary stay for execution, and the hijacking occurs in 1987. Yet the novel feels eminently part of this post-9/1 1 era. Samantha, one of the saved children, struggles to learn more about the hijacking that took her mother's life, even as she fears the consequences of doing so. Others share her paranoia. Lowell, whose mother was also on that plane, begins to learn more about his recently deceased and always emotionally distant father, a former CIA spook; each element of discovery, including evidence that his father had had a working relationship with the leader of the hijacking, exacerbates Lowell's growing fear that this knowledge will prove deadly. The important figures are those who would destroy; those, like Lowell's father, officially required to prevent destruction; and those, like Lowell and Samantha, caught in between.

The terrorist has become a familiar figure and terrorism a common referent in recent Australian writing. I intend to explore a handful of Australian novels published, like Hospital's work, since 2001: A. L. McCann's Subtopia (2005), Linda Jaivin's The Infernal Optimist (2006), Richard Flanagan's The Unknown Terrorist (2006), and Andrew McGahan's Underground (2006). All of these novels entered a world attuned to the destructive potential of the terrorist and wary of the terrorist desire to wreak and skill at wreaking havoc.

In fact, the terrorist as a symbol of a New Australia defined against an older, safer country is a recurring thematic pattern. Julian, protagonist of McCann's Subtopia, grows up in the Melbourne suburbs of the 1970s, but his Australia is still the country abandoned by the hero of George Johns ton's My Brother Jack. Like Johnston, Julian is in revolt against the "rotten dreary suburban sameness," the "barren bloody desert" he finds wherever he looks. Labeling this environment "corpseworld" (36), Julian finds himself drawn to Martin, a trouble-making sort of boy indifferent to suburban longings but able to speak passionately about atrocities occurring elsewhere. It is this evidence of intellectual engagement that connects Julian to Martin despite the latter's many unappealing qualities: "That was how Martin was different. …

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