NetGalley offered The Roving Party in exchange for a review. This book is a literary western with magic realism elements. The story is simple enough. Set in the 1820’s Tasmania or Van Diemen’s Land, a roving party headed by John Batman set out to track and apprehend an aboriginal clan. Central to the story is an aborigine, Black Bill, who aids John in hunting those of his kind.
There isn’t much of a plot or page-turning action or dramatic character development. Instead we’re immersed in the dreary day to day of thugs tracking the “blacks”. Despite the slowness of the plot, the book does engage, mainly because Black Bill is such a mystery. Why would he hunt his own kind? How can he be stoic in the midst of such agressive racism? He is a difficult man to understand, but out of the merry band of thugs, he’s the most compassionate, amazingly enough.
Needless to say, if you’re looking for an easy story to read, this isn’t it. Racism is vicious and ugly and pervasive. Animals are killed without hesitation. Women and children aren’t spared from the cruel calculus of conquest. I didn’t know much about Tasmanian or Australian history before reading this. Oh dear, I know now. Black Bill’s a historical figure, as much as John Batman. They really did go out into the wild looking for aboriginal men to kill, sort of like white men in the American West hunting down Native Americans to kill and scalp–A bit like Blood Meridian, you say?
You’ll find a lot of a reviews that compare this book to Blood Meridian, and the comparison is apt. The prose shares a lot of Cormac McCarthy’s style in cadence, spareness, and emphasis on stark descriptions of the landscape. Dialogue is without punctuation, and the narrative voice exudes poetic omnipotence. However Rowan’s style does leave out McCarthy’s overbearing forcefulness of million-dollar words, paragraph long sentences strung together with ‘and’s, and the unrelenting nihilism of violence. I’m happy to report that Rowan Wilson doesn’t imitate McCarthy’s penchant of taking climatic showdowns off camera.
Ordinarily, this book would earn three stars because I had to make myself read through too many sections of men being inhumane. But the ending surprised me. I think it would surprise you too. The ending only bumps the book from three stars to four stars.
Unflinching and haunting sums it all: The Roving Party.
I will readily proclaim that some fiction is popcorn as compared to others. Does this mean I don’t read popcorn? No. It just means that I’m honest with myself. I won’t try to make all fiction equal in its intellectual value, or decry some books as uppity or pretentious because I’m insecure about my intelligence. I certainly won’t try to claim some kind of plebeian virtue over my popcorn tastes
That said, kindle self-publishing has been a boon to popcorn fiction market. It’s so much easier to succeed if you’re writing romances or erotica as opposed to writing literary fiction. And I suspect that the hurdle of succeeding in literary fiction in the self-publishing universe, is much harder than getting your literary book traditionally published for a modest advance.
There are a few reasons for this. Literary fiction has never really been a money maker. It is the prize winners that get exposure, everything else sinks. Trad publishers used their profits from the blockbuster fiction to subsidize the serious books.
Also literary readers tend to be more conservative about books. They still hold prefer paper over ebooks. I understand the preference. I prefer to have a paper version of Absalom, Absalom. It gets tiring to read long sentences on the screen. Also kindle is great for fast reading. Slow reading is a chore on the the screen.
It is for this reason, I wish the trad publishers get themselves together, find their footing, and finally become the curator of literary culture they are so quick to claim to be. Self-publishing would not yield the likes of Cormac McCarthy or Thomas Pynchon. Yeah yeah, their books are hard to read. It’s their own damn fault that they write book stoppers instead of riveting stuff. True, but not all literature should be riveting stuff. It would be a shame if the literary culture is dominated with Read-and-Forget-it fiction, the Fifty shades of grey equivalents.
On the train ride back from Mumbai, I was finally able to take in the Indian landscape. Certainly wasn’t like the drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles or from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It was a lot of greenery, flatlands with interspersed unshapely trees. Very few mountains or the sheer rock drops like on the drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles. There was a time during the ride when there were massive mountains of clouds in the sky propped up by a plane of grey dust. It brought to mind Cormac McCarthy’s phrase “the mountains in their blue islands stood footless in the void like floating temples” The clouds did look like floating temples. The sentence described perfectly the moment. I had thought Cormac was describing clouds when he was actually describing mountains. I think the phrase perfectly described clouds myself.
Anyway, it got me thinking about descriptive writing. Was Cormac looking at a picture when he wrote that or was that something from his imagination? When I first read the sentence, I thought it was beautiful but it didn’t bring to mind any visual. The sentence though stayed with me for a weeks. Only after I saw those massive clouds did the visual click.
I suppose one must be careful that writing doesn’t sound too cerebral. that the metaphors and vividness actually work for the reader. Of course what makes sense to you, might not sense to another reader. I don’t know what it would take to be able to hit on mental images that resonate with a broad class of readers. Well, I’m learning.