Making much with little material

Issue 

1988
By Andrew McGahan
Allen and Unwin, 314 pp., $14.95
Reviewed by Dave Riley

I like Andrew McGahan's work. It's frank and genuinely shocking. This, his second published novel, leads into the first, raise, which impressed me when I read it last year.

McGahan writes it as it is without indulging himself stylistically. The sentences come short and sharp, the story traces a line that reproduces his own life. No doubt there is space for fiction here, but the two novels seem written up versions of a life led very close to home.

Such intimacy, which in lesser hands would be an excuse for narcissism, McGahan holds at a distance because this is not therapy or aggrandisement. He lives his life to write about it — warts, doubts and all.

Generally, who would give a damn about what Andrew McGahan gets up to? He's not God's gift to the English language and you can't call six months at an isolated weather station exciting material for a novel. But 1988 registers enough intensity — albeit of frustration — to penetrate the indifference of the most resistive reader.

This voice isn't angry — not yet anyway — nor is McGahan a rebel without a cause. In the face of disappointment with an existence short on promise, the only recourse is passivity, relieved only by sex or alcohol.

Not for McGahan starry-eyed idealism or the promise of a new age of sentiment once thought possible during the 1970s and early '80s. Instead, the narrator of this story is forced to believe only in his crippled self. Cut off from the solidarity of those who surround him, even occasional hope soon sours.

But I cannot call this bleak material. McGahan spares himself the full magnitude of alienation because he is horrified by it and refuses to take on the blame for his condition. While he probes and makes the best of what he finds, his voice will resonate broadly, I guess, among anyone young and convinced that the world as offered isn't very nice at all and could, perhaps, be kinder.

1988 is an unforgettable read.