You know you've entered Murray Bail territory when, in the first chapter of Homesickness
, his 13 Australian tourists on a once-in-a-lifetime, round-the-world tour visit a museum in Africa: "Under glass three English toothpaste tubes were at different stages of use: full, half full (thumb-dented tube, white worm protruding), and a fine example of a completely empty one, squeezed dry, corrugated, curled and scratched. Alongside lay a pair of false teeth and arrows pointing back to the toothpaste. The teeth alone were a source of wonder." This Museum of Handicrafts also boasts several British lawnmowers, a French cigarette-rolling machine, a soda-water siphon, and a color TV that, "because there is no television in Africa, the dark continent" is filled with lime-green water, brightly colored fish and a baby crocodile, instead. If his hapless characters are nonplussed by what they find in this unnamed country, readers familiar with Bail's Eucalyptus
will instantly recognize the universe in which they tread: this is epic fable at its finest.
One would expect a story about a package tour of ill-matched compatriots to be heavy on the personal, but in fact Bail doesn't spend much time developing his characters. They are, for the most part, an unsavory bunch, albeit with a few interesting quirks. (Is Mr. Kaddok, the obsessive photographer, really blind, or just pretending to be?) And aside from their names and their predilections, we never get much insight into what they think or why they do what they do. Instead, Bail seems more interested in the situation. There is no plot-heavy or character-driven series of events leading inexorably towards climax and denouement. Rather, the author gives us a set of destinations dotted with strange tourist attractions and punctuated by his characters' responses to them. What makes it all work is Bail's peculiar, particular point of view. Take, for example, his explanation of the Australian "nasal twang":
Such vocal adjustments are needed to reduce the bloody velocity of words in the wide spaces and emptiness of Orstraliah. Words would otherwise travel too far. A similar speech blur evolved in the United States of America. By contrast it seems that the British enunciate clearly in order to penetrate the humidity and hedges, the moist walls and alleyways, as well as the countless words used by previous citizens...
Or the bizarre array of sites they visit: a Corrugated Iron museum, a collection of "Great Brains," and an Institution of Marriage, to name just a few. By the time the tourists reach their final destination, readers will already have deduced what the characters may never fully understand--that in this world of colliding cultures, compulsive tourism, and economic imperialism, everybody is a stranger, even in his own land. But if, in the end, all the world's a museum and all the people in it merely exhibits, at least Murray Bail is writing the gallery labels. Homesickness
, first published in 1980, may not appeal to every reader, but for those looking for exquisite writing coupled with a highly developed sense of the absurd, this book fills the bill. --Alix Wilber