Anthony Macris is an Australian writer and scholar whose thematic concerns include capital, movement, place, alienation, and relationships. He teaches at the University of Technology Sydney. For the past 20 years, Macris has worked on an ambitious series of novels, the first of which was titled Capital (1997) with the second being Great Western Highway (2012). In 2011, he released a critically lauded memoir When Horse Became Saw. Recently, we found time to consider his practice and to think through his current writing projects in light of his oeuvre as a whole.
ROBERT WOOD: How did you come to writing? What did you read growing up, and how did you come to develop your current practice?
ANTHONY MACRIS: I loved reading from the age of five or six. I read every Enid Blyton book I could get my hands on. As I got older I’d read anything that was lying around. If I could understand something too easily, I’d get bored, so I was always flinging myself at things I wasn’t ready for. My father didn’t have much of an education but was an autodidact: he loved the Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, so I read them in my mid-teens. Also around that age I read a lot of French literature. I loved Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, and I plugged away at Proust even though the world of Belle Epoque could not have been more alien to my life in Brisbane, capital of sunny Queensland. It was the sentences. They were so ornate! In my late teens I went through a Nietzsche phase, a James Joyce phase, and in my early 20s I read a fair bit of Marx. Later in the mid 1990s, when I was doing a masters in creative writing at Johns Hopkins, I did David Harvey’s courses on reading Marx’s Capital, and studied volumes one and two in detail.
Can you tell us about the narrative of your novel Capital, and the process of writing it? Where did it come from and what was it responding to in your life?
I started to write it when I was living in London in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Personally it was a difficult period. I’d split up with my long-term girlfriend, and I’d lost my job teaching English language because of falling enrolments due to the Gulf War: foreign students stopped coming to London because they thought it wasn’t safe. So I was broke and alone in this small flat in the East End. It was all pretty miserable, but in some ways I didn’t mind it. It was as if the slate of my life had been wiped clean, and I could begin again. So I started to write a novel that intercut London, my tabula rasa present, and Brisbane, the city I grew up in. London is represented by the Tube system, which had always fascinated me. It’s an iconic structure of capitalist modernity, a great clanking mechanical beast that, during that period at any rate, was always breaking down. I’ll never forget standing on the platform of one of its most run-down lines, the Northern Line, and watching this mouse crouch at a pool of vomit between the tracks and nibble at it. If that isn’t a universal metaphor for capitalism, I don’t know what is.
The second part of that book, Great Western Highway, was released in 2012, and together with Capital, it forms one of the more ambitious projects in recent Australian letters. Some critics have compared you to Robert Musil and others have noted the role of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Can you speak of the long shadow of high modernism for you?
I’ve spent a lot of my creative life under the spell of high modernism. When I was a young teenager, one of my older siblings had to buy a James Joyce anthology for a course they were doing. It had an extract from Finnegans Wake. I remember reading this sentence: “In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!” I was dazzled by it, the way language could evoke whole universes in a multilayered way. It also struck me as very funny. Later I read Ulysses, which basically made me want to be a writer. Another important high-modernist moment was reading Claude Simon’s Conducting Bodies. It works in the opposite way to Joyce, but to a similar end. At the sentence level there’s a kind of naïve realism in the way words render objects and images, but the sentences aren’t in the service of narrative: rather they serve an analogic system that tries to grasp the whole world. I just love high modernism’s vaulting ambition, this quest to find a language and novelistic form that attempts to grasp totalities. It’s mad and quixotic and, for me, totally inspiring.
Building from that, Great Western Highway self-consciously understands the novel in an epic tradition too, but one that firmly comes after post-structuralism. This gives it a different self-consciousness of form compared to the big novels of Leo Tolstoy, Ford Maddox Ford, and others in the late 19th century. How do you see the novel as a type of epic today?
I’ve always been attracted to big-picture issues and how they affect the individual, that notion of how larger social and historical forces mediate the individual and the everyday. For example, a major part of Great Western Highway is about the 1990-91 Gulf War, the world’s first “digital” war and one that reasserted American Empire. I have my hero/anti-hero compulsively watch the live feeds on television. I like this notion of flattening onto one plane a hi-tech war, a broken romance, the London Tube system, the constant threat of casualized work that can end at any moment, and so on. One major influence on the Capital novels is the work of French philosophers Deleuze & Guattari, and their notion of endlessly ramifying systems that bring into connection diverse orders of phenomena: the economic, the aesthetic, the affective, and so on. In this kind of thinking individuals are the intersecting points where such lines converge. I’ve always found that a really exciting idea. And the biggest driving force behind all this is, in my view, market forces. In the Capital novels I’ve tried to create a novelistic structure that somehow embodies the dynamism of market forces at the formal level. That’s why I use a lot of mirror effects, intercutting and diverse text types. And the Joyce influence is never far away. I see my Capital novels as a kind of materialist rewrite of Joyce along poststructuralist lines.
Pivoting now, the very title of the first part references Karl Marx (and others), and the work knowingly engages with the language of anti-capitalism and the valences of neoliberalism. What are the ways you think of the novel as social critique — not only of the powerful and the privileged, but also the everyday citizen and their economic habits?
I think the best way I can answer that is by describing what drove me to write the Capital novels. I grew up in my parents’ fish and chip shop in Brisbane. The front half of the building was the shop, the back half the house. You can’t get much closer to market forces than that! Later, during the 1980s when I was in my 20s, there was a revolution going on, the neoliberal revolution, spearheaded by Regan and Thatcher. I felt this was an important theme to address, the way market forces were penetrating into every aspect of daily life. Now, when something is that pervasive, that all-powerful, it’s important at strategic points to suspend obvious critique: rather, you need to bear witness. So part of the intent of the Capital novels is to bear witness to capitalism’s terrible dynamism, its crushing prevalence. That was very much the intent of the first novel. The second novel, Great Western Highway, takes a more critical stance.
Can you speak about how being Australian inflects your readings of high modernism, post structuralism, Marxism? Does it matter you are here when those conversations are often “over there”?
When I started conceptualising the Capital novels, one of my main questions was this: what formal tools do I need to grasp the complex entity that is global capitalism? Whether I was writing in or about Australia has never mattered to me that much. Australia is as good as any other country to do this kind of thing. Now, as with any inquiry that is too big, the best way to proceed is to cut it down to size, to find proxies, representative features that will convey your meaning. The kind of things I chose were main arterial roads in Sydney and Kuwait, the London Tube system, vignettes from daily working life, advertising culture, the Gulf War as image commodity, a monologue by Margaret Thatcher (a parody of Joyce’s Molly Bloom soliloquy), and so on. My characters and their dilemmas are distributed across these interlinking fields: they form the portals of subjective experience into this larger, surging totality. Now, formally speaking, it was obvious that standard realist discourse wasn’t going to do the job. Nor was traditional modernist discourse: it was born of different times. And I didn’t think postmodern techniques would do it either: there’s a kind of materialist substratum that underpins my work that seems at odd with postmodern playfulness, even when it’s making serious points. So what I’ve been trying to do is to take the spirit of the modernist tradition, always an internationalist spirit, and to see and speak things that haven’t been seen or spoken before, at least in the form of the novel.
When we were in touch earlier, you mentioned you are working on the third novel in the Capital series. What does this future book look like and where is it at?
I’m working hard on it at the moment, and it seems to be taking shape (fingers crossed!). It’s set partly in the 1960s and ’70s in the shop I grew up in. As I work through the material I can see the theme of capital taking on a new line of inquiry. This could be summed up as: what is the nature of the capitalist subject? And how does this subject shape itself within a certain time and place? It’s a much more intimate book: in part it’s a book about family and childhood. The shop chapters are interwoven with an account of my BA studies at Sydney University, where I majored in French and Philosophy. So that’s another formative period. I like the idea of embedding these different incarnations of the self into one another. You’ve got the innocence of childhood, the blind acceptance of the world you’re born into, then the “enlightenment” period of early adult life, the one where you’re expected to take control of who you want to be, to self-consciously shape your identity and destiny. But, in a market-dominated society, that process of identity formation has to conform to certain norms. It’s truly a Faustian pact. It’s all very fraught, but it’s also very interesting.