Australians may not be well known for hard-boiled, noir fiction, partly perhaps because their country is so dammed sunny. If we’re gonna go the whole hog and use some national stereotyping, let’s say we expect Australians to be care-free, relaxed and outdoors kinda people (if you’re not, my Antipodean friend, I want my money back). But when you think about it a little more, it does make sense that an Australian could write a Chandler-esque novel quite well (and in this case, better than well) because the flipside is that Australia is a tough and testing country. The weather can be relentless, the wild-life may kill ya and it’s one helluva big place. Still, sunshine, blonde beer and blonde girls convince me otherwise. When do we emigrate darling?
Andrez Bergen is Australian and he’s the author of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. It’s post-apocalyptic and post-modern noir, in itself an unusual concept. Whilst Raymond Chandler may have been frustrated with the strict formula demanded by his editors, Bergen is fortunate to now be in a time in which publishers can take more of a gamble on a novel which subverts the genre it is inspired by. Bergen does this by futuristically updating the form, so he can write into, and out of, his imagination. There’s lots of brain-space in this book, but not so much to put you off if you usually steer away from science fiction. The novel has futuristic elements, but is still grounded in the human.
The hard-drinking, hard-boiled and witty hero, Floyd, would usually be the detective in a Chandler story but here in the “new” Melbourne, post-event, he’s placed in a bubble-like world as a “Seeker”, with more authority than a Chandler detective, to seek, locate, apprehend, contain and terminate Deviants. As someone who spends most of his time with deviants of one type or another, I can understand why Floyd hates his job. Similarly it seems Bergen had experience of identifying with outsiders before writing this novel, working “a mind-numbing corporate job at an ad hoc government/private body, and it was there that I crossed paths with “Activities” (real but semi-illegal video surveillance we organized of car accident victims doing aerobics and the like). The Guide to Deviant Apprehension & Containment was roughly modelled on the corporate tome I had to learn by rote” (Bergen says). In “Mountain Goat” the Bill of Deviations has been backed, or pushed, by Wolram E. Deaps, CEO of the Hylax Corporation. And there’s no particular definition of deviancy, so it’s potentially all-encompassing.
Chandler’s heroes have to fight the system to get some resolution and Bergen’s hero is no different. He’s only doing the job to pay his sick wife’s hospital bills, and he never gets to see her. He lives with the nagging fear of being “relocated” but somehow can’t keep his acerbic mouth shout. He’s constantly in trouble with authority, despite being in authority himself. And just as in Chandler’s novels, the hero’s instincts usually turn out to be correct.
Ultimately however what makes this book a good read is not plot nor form, but observation, wit and dialogue. Bergen clearly enjoys language (“the phone was beeping in its tinny, hysterical manner”). If you like hard-boiled humour and one-liners, this novel’s for you:
“I slunk home sometime around noon – though my watch was not to be trusted given that it was an archaic Japanese wind-up toy with a life expectancy intended to break kid’s hearts”.
There’s an element of absurdism throughout the book because of the particular world the characters now inhabit. Despite there being a “world” cricket team, it’s entirely made up of Australians (who play the “named” Australian team) as there’s nobody else left. The society which remains is shallow and consumerist (and I would suggest not because they’re Australian). Floyd’s almost zen-buddhist approach to life is therefore in strong contrast to what is around him (it’s perhaps noteworthy Bergen now lives in Asia). Plastic surgery is taken to the nth degree, and gadgets abound:
“I picked up what I thought to be an alien torture device, then twigged it was an electric toilet brush. A central display featured a silver toaster that looked a bit like it could do your taxes”.
The setting also means that if an individual has some form of ethics they stand out even more. Floyd tells Deaps that the fictional detectives “Spade and Marlowe had a certain approach to things – I guess you could call it a gritty combination of honour and integrity that coloured their actions. It’s something I always respected.” This is what Floyd himself embodies, and Bergen gives us examples of his hero putting himself out for others, and taking personal risks for others’ benefit.
In the background of a wasteland, Bergen makes as many allusions to film as TS Eliot made to literature. There’s a useful “Encylopedia Tobacciana” at the end of the novel which you can check out if you’re not sure what a reference is to, and similarly a glossary for the slang contained in the novel. These add to the sense of the quirky, as does the calligraphy in the book itself and the typeset. Chandler could perhaps be scratching his head about some of this, safe up in heaven-dead, but his own writing always struck me as kind of idiosyncratic, and we’re living in different times now brother. In a modern age of conspiracies and corporate agglomerates, I think he’d be pleased as to where Bergen has taken his legacy, even though Chandler said himself that an age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of decadence.
Read our interview with Andrez Bergen here
Publisher: Another Sky Press
Publication Date: 1 APR 2011
FIRST PUBLISHED ZOUCH MAGAZINE 07 FEB 2012