Friday, 1 October 2010

Equator launched in style

Tony Bond, curator and director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, recounted his experience of reading Equator when he spoke at the launch of Wayne Ashton’s second novel in Sydney.

“It was only when I got to the end of this substantial volume that I realised it would be a disaster to give away the threads of the narrative, or even to try and unpick the key relationships. To do so would ruin the experience of the book; it’s not so much a question of giving away the punch line but of pre-empting the slow dawning of who is speaking when, and who relates to who, and what or who is that slightly irritating narrator who carries the narrative forward as he converses with a butterfly.

“We meet many of the key characters in the first few pages (although we don’t recognise all of them as such till two-thirds of the way through the book). There are two equators in play: the one that girdles the planet, and the other that revolves around it, bringing night and day. The book, in other words, traverses space and time because above everything else it is about memory. We flip from the 1930s to the present and bits in between and we find ourselves in Spain, Calcutta, Edinburgh, London, Perth and Sydney. There are magical descriptions of places and sensations and engaging character portrayals throughout as they interweave. At one time three generations from three continents (connected by chance encounters) almost all come together in one time and place for a brief moment – but not quite. The sea voyage is a subplot and I think Wayne would be very happy to spend the rest of his life on a good boat drifting from surf to surf and from reef to gorgeous reef. On reflection, this differs from one of our more reclusive characters because unlike him Wayne also likes to party.

“Wayne himself sometimes steps in to interrupt the rich flow of the many narratives with extended and perceptive philosophical and political commentary of his own. At times the insight he brings to particular human conditions cuts right through all the devices for multiple voices and the texture of the book to move us with strongly felt descriptions of other people’s joy and suffering. These passages are clearly drawn from close personal experience.

“Memory is one of my own central preoccupations; for me the way objects, smells and sounds can transport us is the cornerstone of art. Wayne anthropomorphises memory as a cast of characters: some are good, some bad, but he questions the possibility of absolute veracity even in the good guys. He also hints that a bit of mythmaking is sometimes valuable, particularly the little white lies we get by on. Even the most intensely felt memories sometimes morph over time into something quite different from what an objective observer might have reported. In any case the memories transport stuff in this book for good or ill.

Equator is a warm, sometimes affectionate book about fallible people and about the possibility of awful fate that can transform an individual’s behaviour for better or worse. It obliquely encourages us to see beyond anyone’s present behaviour – even when it is desperately destructive – to see that there may have been great good there that somehow became derailed. In other words it exhorts us to avoid being judgemental in the here and now. Wayne also speculates about technology’s ability to try and control fate, DNA and all that, and how badly this might impact on the necessary complexity of life. Anyway who really knows what is truly mad and bad?

“It is not a book I would pick up and put down between reading other things, a bad habit of mine. This is a book that probably needs a good weekend by the fire with a storm outside and no distractions, except perhaps a little scotch.”

Equator is available now from and in all good bookstores.

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