Academic journal article Hecate

A Life of Its Own: A Deconstructive Reading of Astley's A Kindness Cup

Academic journal article Hecate

A Life of Its Own: A Deconstructive Reading of Astley's A Kindness Cup

Article excerpt

Thea Astley's novels appear to disconcert even enthusiastic readers, and it is possible that they are beyond the reach of the more usual modes of criticism. Indeed, if Mark MacLeod is correct in saying that Astley speaks about her novels A Descant for Gossips (1960), A Boatload of Home Folk (1968), A Kindness Cup (1974) and An Item From the Late News(1982) "with no affection at all, stopping short only of disowning them",(1) it could be that the novels have begun to disconcert the novelist herself. A reading which allows for the dissociation of author and text may therefore provide a useful interpretation of what the novels are doing, and one which differs quite radically from most interpretations of what the novels appear to do.

A brief survey of the responses of some of Astley's critics indicates the uneasiness that her texts generate. Laurie Clancy praised An Item from the Late News by saying that it disturbed and distressed him so much that he could not bear to pick it up.(2) Helen Garner was "practically in a sweat" reading what she called the "relentlessly sustained climax" of the novel, but says she was driven berserk by the "heavy-handed, layered-on, inorganic, hectic and distracting style" which reminded her of a "very handsome, strong and fit woman with too much make-up on".(3) Critics admit that the novels are complex, or that there is something complex in their genesis, even when the complexity is dismissed as dull and obvious posturing.(4) Some reviewers use phrases that would not be used of a male author. Under the familiar equation of women with children, Astley is said to "see the adult world, not as a participating adult, but as a bitterly disappointed adolescent might see it".(5) Several reviewers find her style "arch",(6) and another believes that Astley has "possibly the sharpest and most biting tongue of almost any contemporary Australian novelist".(7) Her "appalling and scathing vision of life in rural Australia" is compared with that of Barbara Baynton;(8) and her observing eye is acknowledged to be "that of a woman, quite disconcertingly acute".(9) More cogently, critics point consistently to Astley's lack of interest in plot, and to her use of outer incident only to reveal inner life.(10) Some see the cursory plotting as a weakness, others as a strength. But a consciousness-centred work is a normal mode; it may be executed well or badly.

One critic, adopting phrases used by Astley in The Well Dressed Explorer (1962) concludes that "If in the long run this novel, like its predecessors, wavers into incoherence, it seems to be because these `flickering glances', `these spots of wild light', are no substitute for a steady and informing radiance."(11) That is, Virginia Woolf's apprehension of fragmented, myriad-impressioned experience, and Dorothy Richardson's search in 1938 for a stream-of-consciousness narrative to produce what she called "a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism",(12) have no significance for a critic who prefers steady masculinist illumination.

More pertinently, some critics see in Astley's novels an anarchic and detached cynicism, what Brian Matthews aptly calls "an impending, eager-to-consume anarchy", which he believes allows her novels to "stand as an unnervingly truthful perception of what it is like to live in a time of disintegration, and to live always in the eye of some hurricane of some kind, somewhere".(13) But this is not only the fate of Astley's characters, it is the central stance of her texts. Although the disintegrating state occurs in specific situations in the life of any man or woman, there is sociological, literary and personal evidence to show that a woman's awareness of a world shaped and ordered by the needs and priorities of men may lead to a persistent sense of disintegration, a sense of being becalmed and trapped in the eye of a hurricane over which one has no control.

A recurring phrase in A Kindness Cup is "the world of men", and it carries a fiercely pejorative connotation. …

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