Claypans breathed like skin, and you could feel it, right inside the marrow of your bones. The old people said it was the world stirring itself, right down to the sea. Sometimes, in Desperance, everyone heard the drying mud crack in the vast claypans. You could hear the ground groaning, splitting its epidermis into channels of deep cuts all across the ground. It looked like a fisherman's net, except it was red-brown, and it trapped whatever was down below from breaking through to the surface. It made you think that whatever it was living down underneath your feet was much bigger than you, and that gave them old clan folk real power. They said it was a good reason to keep on living right where they were. Keep it right. Everyone had to keep fighting those old spirit wars, on either side of that, Got nothing, going nowhere neither, Uptown.
The Gulf of Carpentaria is the immense bight between Australia's two "horns" in the tropical north. Aboriginal communities along it are more numerous than elsewhere in the country; Arnhem Land on the west coast of the gulf, in the Northern Territory, is mostly outstation communities with few white residents at all. Alexis Wright's novel Carpentaria is set on the east side, along the Queensland coast, in a town called Desperance, where tensions between "Uptown"--the white section--and "Pricklebush"--the aboriginal one--are high.
Both communities, but especially Uptown, function as characters themselves, with collective motivation and agency. Wright names a few actual Uptowners--there's the mayor, unironically named "Bruiser," police officer Truthful--but mostly, they act in concert and are written about that way. Uptown gossips, Uptown rages, Uptown schemes. They gossip, rage, and scheme against "the Pricklebush mob," and the tensions between them are depressingly recognizable from an American standpoint: at one point late in the novel, an aboriginal boy is badly beaten in revenge for a white man's death, though he had nothing to do it. At another, three other aboriginal boys hang themselves after being arrested for a murder they did not commit. Much of the tension centers around the recent creation of a mine, which has quickly become the economic heart of Desperance, even as it desecrates sacred ground.
"Pricklebush," by contrast, sometimes functions collectively, but more often is described with its own interior tensions. Early in the novel, a disagreement over a statue of the Virgin Mary discovered in a trash heap (???) divides the town into two parts, half of whom angrily storm off to live on the east side. The Pricklebush mob end up, in a kind of ironic twist on white colonialism, literally surrounding the white community. There are tensions within the aboriginal community about the nature of the mine; many rely on it for work but others are suspicious of its sinister power. Before the events of the novel, Pricklebush resident Will Phantom led a campaign of sabotage against the mine, before heading out on the lam with a traveling convoy on walkabout through the songlines of northeastern Australia. Will's actions form the context of much of the novel: the tensions within Pricklebush, the tensions between Pricklebush and Uptown, and the tensions within his own family: his father, Norm, has more or less disavowed him.
All of that makes this novel seem much more ordinary than it really is. The magical realism is heavy here: early in the book a white man walks into town from the sea without any memory of who he is. This man, Elias, a close friend of Norm and Will (and perhaps a symbolic suggestion that if white people are going to get along with aboriginal folks they have to divest themselves of a long memory and history) ends up being killed by the mine for reasons that were not quite clear to me; a big chunk of the plot involves the safe passage of his miraculously preserved body to a mystical place in the sea where giant grouper guide boats. The figures of aboriginal religion are present and real here, and they have as real an impact on what happens as the gods of the Iliad. One memorable minor character is in love with a mermaid trapped in the wooden bar of his pub.
The writing itself adds to the strangeness. Wright's style is both wordy and casual, and the mystical nature of the plot is balanced by colloquialisms that ally the narrator with the Pricklebush mob. Sometimes it veers weirdly into cliche, but cliches that are never quite wielded in the way you expect:
It is important to say straight up that it was no good at all for Elias coming in from the sea empty-handed like he was, and no good being anywhere with an empty head with even less than ten cents' worth of the richness of his own memory anymore. If you put an empty shell in struggle town, or Uptown like the prickly bush mob called it, expect a ton of bad things to happen. His was a lethal combination; he would have been better off being an ant under a leaf if he had zilch left, not even his memory for a bit of trade.
Part of me wants to say this really needs editing, but part of me feels that cutting away at it might only make the novel, which is so sui generis, more like everything else. But it is a lot to wade through for 500 pages, and reflects the novel's overall shagginess and aimlessness. The conflict over the mine is a macguffin, really; although there's an action movie-like scene where Will is picked up in a helicopter by nefarious badguys, Wright isn't interested in anything like a conventional protest narrative. The most evocative scenes in the novel are typically the ones in which a character is alone with the forces of nature, or their spiritual analogues: Norm drifting at sea, or through a mangrove forest, Will in the outback or in the middle of a cyclone. It's in those scenes that the true spirit of the novel, both in its weirdness and affection for this remote part of the world, really comes to life.