— This review originally appeared on the Wheeler Centre.
The protagonist of Tim Winton’s Eyrie notes that his behaviour was once characterised as “florid and manic. As if he thought he were a character in a Russian novel. It was creepy. It wasn’t normal.” Tom is indeed like a character from a Russian work. Throughout the novel one is reminded of Dostoyevsky’s manic, bitter and isolated protagonist from Notes from the Underground, the infamous Underground Man. Set in a towering, low-rent apartment building in Western Australia, his own “seedy little eyrie,” Tom Keely is Winton’s perversion of Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero, a sort of Overground Man.
The elevated setting is a “classic shitbox” high-rise in Fremantle, the loftily named Mirador – “beige bricks, raw concrete galleries, ironbar railings, doors and windows like prison slots…too large a mistake to be undone” – from which Keely regards the world. Winton’s prose is comically brilliant in rendering a gruff and authentic West Australian vernacular to deliver contemptuous commentary on the greed and absurdity of our age, as Keely heaps (sometimes affectionate, mostly not) scorn on the city and its inhabitants below.
The opening section of the novel is an amusing jangle of riffs and diatribes as he occasionally sets forth into the fray, forced into close proximity with the drunks and transients as well as the new gentrifying crowds that make up the city, all of whom he regards with disdain:
“He angled away into an oncoming torrent of pedestrians, all boiled faces and beetling sunglasses, a surge of elbows, phones, smoke-puckers and semi-syllables within a fug of sweat and warring perfumes.”
Winton conjures masterfully the oppressive cacophony of city life, the destructive and alienating effects of the urban environment upon the individual: “The concrete forecourt livid, the street branding, blinding, breath-sucking. Acid light plashed white underfoot, swashing wall to wall, window upon window, and he waded in it a moment, tilting spastic and helpless.”
Made low though up high, Keely is publicly disgraced, newly divorced and jobless. As in the metaphor of the title, he is holed up like a bird in its nest, seeking solitude and quietness, yet the world won’t let him alone. The intrusions are, at first, merely the sounds and smells of his neighbours that echo and reverberate throughout the bones of the building:
“the stench of strangers…anonymous and reassuringly disconnected, mere thuds and throat-clearings behind bare brick walls, laugh tracks and pongs he needn’t put a face to.”
The solitude and emptiness of his life there, however, is suddenly thrown on its head by the chance intrusion of a figure from his childhood. Gemma Buck: the little blonde girl who, sobbing with her sisters, would seek refuge from their violent family on the steps of his parents’ house is now middle aged like him, but needing as much protection and salvation as ever.
Gemma is that mixture of neediness and defiance, seduction and prickliness that comes with being betrayed so often no-one can hold your trust again. Though occasionally seared with lust for her, what ensnares Keely to an increasingly draining and volatile situation is Kai, the six-year-old grandson of Gemma. Kai is innocent, vulnerable, stoic and captivating. He appears as an almost wraith-like figure, convinced that he will never grow old, seeing himself die in his dreams. The novel has an abiding sense of dread around Kai, characteristic of the early chapters of a horror story. It is a tension that isn’t released, though Keely’s wish to protect him is all-encompassing.
Yet what begins as a darkly engaging novel of modern Australian urban life – a heady Overground Man narration of the flaws of the city and of our time – descends into a meandering tale of a fall for which the work seems constantly to be teetering on the edge of. That the literal fall never occurs is fitting, Eyrie is a series of endless metaphorical falls.
In a typically nuanced review for The Australian, Geordie Williamson noted Winton’s references throughout the work to pioneering stream-of-consciousness style Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. Williamson quotes literary critic James Wood on Hamsun, who writes, “[Hamsun] took from Dostoevsky the idea that plot is not something that merely happens to a character, but that a really strange character leads plot around like an obedient dog…More than most fictional heroes, the hero in Hamsun writes the novel we read, plots it for us.” This, I think, is the most apt encapsulation of the odd meanderings of the third section, and what I regard as the more problematic section of the novel. Keely rambles in long and repetitive passages, and though this does indeed add to the sense we have of a defeated and disturbed consciousness (further addled by prescription meds and “the fruit of the Barossa”), like a dog who has been on a walk that has gone on rather long, after a while we tend to resist at the continued pull of the lead.
The third section becomes restless and uncomfortable. All the spangly, stream of consciousness brilliance of the opening descends into tedium and discomfort. The beginning is manic and frenetic and addictive, and like a love affair it sours. Which is, of course, the ultimate point. But would this novel have been allowed to be this length if it wasn’t written by Tim Winton? Would a debut novelist have been indulged the way Winton has been? Winton is an experienced player, working expertly at the instrument he knows well. As with the soloist at the orchestra Keely attends, we do indeed applaud the brilliance, even if the performance is longer than one may have felt necessary.
But even with the indulgences of the final section, Eyrie is a truly skillful and searing commentary on our age. Of the way in which the only sense of urban community now is when our isolation – eyes politely averted in the apartment lift, a quickening of pace on the footpath – is ruptured by violence.