May 2008

Arts & Letters

In the giant green cathedral

By Malcolm Knox
Tim Winton’s ‘Breath & surf writing’

“I can never remember my best waves,” said Mick Fanning, of Coolangatta, when he became the world surfing champion last year. “You ride it without even really knowing what you're doing. And you get to the end and you're thinking, What did I just do?”

The most articulate surfer would say exactly the same thing. The experience of standing on, through, and inside a wave is too mercurial for memory, too slippery for words. This is why surfing invites obsession and repetition, as if one faint wave-memory after another can accrete into a permanent idea.

Like any experience of the sublime, surfing has tempted and eluded writers. It is natural to want to render the experience, but the writer is commonly left grasping for something that was there a moment ago but is no longer. This has left a literature of surfing that is a literature of experimentation and approximation, and ultimately differing degrees of failure. Some surf writing is as technical and jargon-laden as bureaucratese. Other surf writing tends towards the cod-metaphysical, the school of ‘paddle in the troughs and cruise on the crests, and you will go well in your life, my friend.' Some have tried to express the act of surfing a wave with beat-poet immediacy. Bob McTavish, a legendary surfer and board shaper (I'll get to that word ‘legendary'), tried his best in Surf International magazine in 1967:

Wow!! Ssswishssss, swoop!! Toes pressed through wax job. Stomach in upper reaches of chest cavity. Feeling the bounce of the re-entry ...

GET IT ON!! Thrust! Move it out! Up. Under. Curl. Coming over! Right over! (that noise) Inside! (that feel) A GIANT GREEN CATHEDRAL AND I AM THERE. Positive - Negative Pow!! Infinity.

McTavish later left stream-of-consciousness and tried simile - a session at Noosa, he wrote, had been "like having a cup of tea with God" - but he ended up embarrassed by what he had written. Years later, when a surfer told him, "You get tubed, you see God," McTavish protested silently: "But I wrote that crap!"

The futility of a surfer writing about surfing poses the question: Why? Why not just leave it alone? If a reader wants to know what surfing feels like, isn't the best thing to go and learn to surf? If a writer wants to capture lightning in a bottle, shouldn't that writer leave the desk and get back into the water?

This failure was confessed by Fiona Capp in her 2003 memoir-essay That Oceanic Feeling. Capp had sublimated her bittersweet surfing memories into her 1996 novel Night Surfing. But turning the experience into art was not, in the end, enough. She quotes Freud: sublimation "does not convulse our physical being". To assuage her pain, she simply had to surf again. And then write about it.

But still, why?

I found the answer in a ride by Josh Kerr in a semi-final against Mick Fanning at Snapper Rocks, on the Gold Coast. I was reading Some Day, Will Swanton's book about Fanning's quest to win the 2007 world title. I also had a DVD round-up of the world-title year. I would read Swanton's chapter about each contest and then watch it.

Swanton devotes some 350 words to Kerr's wave, complete with McTavishesque fragments ("Go. Go you mad bastard. Go hard"), italicised emphasis ("The only escape is up") and the obligatory "complete contradiction of the laws of gravity". Finally, Kerr having disappeared into the wave for "One second, two seconds, three seconds, he's still gone," the audience looks away ... "then he makes it! Kerr re-emerges like a mountaineer coming out of a blizzard three days after he'd been given up for dead."

I only wish I could deploy similar language to describe my laughter on actually seeing the wave. Kerr's manoeuvre was brilliant, but it was also very quick. The "one second, two seconds, three seconds" was actually about half a second, and the laws of gravity were, disappointingly, left uncontradicted.

Swanton's account bears not the slightest resemblance to the footage of Kerr's wave. But the crucial thing was, for those of us who are not Josh Kerr, Swanton's version was better. It will stick in my mind longer, thanks to the vividness of the hyperbole. Like the fishing story or the war story or the explorer's story, the surfing story grows bigger in the telling. It is a shaggy-dog story. How best to write about surfing? Not in trying to accurately limn the experience, but in lying about it, glossing it, misting it over as epic and legendary, turning Josh Kerr's half-second into a mountaineer's odyssey.

When you hear surfers talk (as opposed to write) about their waves, you soon understand that to fictionalise, and to historicise, is their first instinct. Tim Winton grabs for both in his novel Breath (Penguin, 224pp; $45). Stripped of the writer's main tool - a concise memory - Winton brings the experience of surfing to life with far more subtle and effective means than stream-of-consciousness or breathless hyperbole.

Breath is a fiction, but it is also a fiction within a fiction. The narrator, Bruce Pike, is speaking from late middle-age. He is a grumpy paramedic, unpopular with his colleagues, a loner. This framing device is established at the outset and only glancingly returned to until the final pages of the book. The story within the frame is Bruce's childhood and coming of age, his progression from a timid boy into a young man who tries to surf the most frightening wave of all and then takes on a challenge that leaves him even further out of his depth.

Although set in familiar Winton territory and time - south-western WA, the past half-century - Breath is best read in the way that we might read a historical novel. The framing device gives the surf sequences the sepia tint that brings them alive. Surfers are keenly attuned to history, if in a self-creating way. If a surfer is legendary, it is because of feats achieved in an ‘epic' past. It is no coincidence that great days are described as ‘epic'. Even a day ago can be historicised instantly: You should have been here yesterday.

Winton understands this, and by encasing his story within the retrospective frame he is giving the surfing legend its proper form. By situating this story so deeply inside the fictional, Winton is making the most of that truth that every surf storyteller knows: bullshit is better, and truer, than photorealism.

‘Legendary' is the most overused word in the surfing lexicon, but it does capture something of the kind of memory which elevates experience into fable. My favourite surfing book is MP, Sean Doherty's 2004 biography of the Gold Coast surfer Michael Peterson. MP is compelling because Peterson embodies an era in Australian social history and is an archetypal wasted genius. It has some fine passages on waves that Peterson caught, but it is the sense of the epic, of the legendary, that Doherty captures best.

Peterson is a type who has had a lifelong appeal to Winton, and in Breath the wayward talent is Loonie, Bruce Pike's childhood mate. They grow up in Sawyer, a logging/milling/dairy town, and while ‘Pikelet' is the timorous observer, Loonie is the charismatic daredevil, frightening onlookers by holding himself underwater in the river for long periods - his trick, which he shows Pikelet, is to grab a tree root.

Pikelet's parents are practical and plain, with a fear of the open sea aggravated by a friend's drowning. But Loonie soon introduces Pikelet to surfing at the Point, the local river-mouth point break, where Pikelet sees "blokes dancing themselves across the bay with smiles on their faces and sun in their hair ... How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared."

The surfing narrative, whether lived or written, follows the lines of epic literature. New, frightening challenges rear up. Once conquered, they unveil a newer, scarier challenge. Having mastered the Point, Loonie and Pikelet surf Barney's, a break with a resident white pointer, then the thundering deepwater reef break Old Smokey, and finally an almost-unsurfable frontier break called the Nautilus.

An epic requires a guide, and theirs is an older surfer named Bill Sanderson, who only turns up when the surf is big and who had been the only one to have surfed Old Smokey. ‘Sando', the ex-champion with the mysterious past, is a blend of many archetypes: Matt Johnson (the wasted talent) and The Bear (the mysterious, purist outsider) from the 1978 film Big Wednesday rolled into one. Sando's quest to ride the Nautilus pulls the boys along with him, but also separates them from each other.

The novel's second part moves from the water to a love affair on dry land, where Sando's wife, Eva, plays the Calypso role of seductress and entrapper. (Too much, incidentally, can be made of the maleness of the surf story. The recent Australian novels involving surfing that spring to mind are all written by and about women: Night Surfing, Nine Parts Water by Emma Hardman, The True Green of Hope by Nike Bourke.) While this transition is necessary, it is the beauty and power of the earlier surfing sequences that will make Breath known as Winton's ‘surfing novel'. He has a lot of fans among surfers. Last year, on the forum, the question of desert-island books was posed. Alongside the predictable cult books (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Dice Man, A Confederacy of Dunces), one literary novelist popped up again and again: Tim Winton. The passages in Breath describing Pikelet, Loonie and Sando surfing Old Smokey are the Winton that they have been longing for.

That day I went back across to the bombora and rode two waves. Together those rides wouldn't add up to more than half a minute of experience, of which I can only recall a fraction: flickering moments, odd details. Like the staccato chat of water against the board. A momentary illusion of being at the same level as the distant cliffs. The angelic relief of gliding out onto the shoulder of the wave in a mist of spray and adrenaline. Surviving is the strongest memory I have; the sense of having walked on water.

Edmund Burke wrote that the ocean is a source of the sublime because it produces "the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling". In Winton's novel we have the full push of those emotions: fear, ecstasy, more fear, and the ecstasy that is a counterweight to the fear that is overcome. So there is the answer to that question: Why write about it?

Slabs of this book, perhaps even the whole novel, will be seen - deservedly, I think - as Tim Winton's very best work. Since he came down from the eccentric heights and unrepeatable genius of Cloudstreet, Winton has relaxed into a lean and muscular style. His influence in Australian literature is only fully appreciated when you go beneath the surface and read unpublished manuscripts. Because Winton's material and style appear simple and honest, many writers think they only have to be simple and honest to achieve his effects. The problem is, Winton makes it look too easy. When I was judging an award for unpublished Australian novels three years ago, Winton's settings and characters washed up in manuscript after manuscript. The more I read, the more I was exclaiming: "Bloody Tim Winton has a lot to answer for." But the more I read, the more I appreciated the depth of his talent.

In the closing part of this novel, the many articulations of breath - circulating it to play the didgeridoo, holding it underwater, losing it while being smashed by a wave, free diving for abalone, Pikelet's father struggling with sleep apnoea, the convulsions exploited by Eva - seem increasingly dictatorial, as if the central image, and not the characters, is driving the story. But drowning has been such an ongoing anxiety in Winton's work that it's hard to separate image from characters, and certainly not a fault to judge harshly.

I suspect this book will have two kinds of readers: those who see the surfing as the prelude to the love affair, and those who see the love affair as a painful diversion from the surfing. I don't think either reading lessens Breath's unforgettable qualities. As the second kind of reader, the one who didn't want to get out of the water, I have been dragged again through the pains of having to grow up and be among people. I have absorbed Bruce Pike's sadness.

The return to the present, the closing of the frame, comes as a rude awakening. As in Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, the summary nature of the last pages only seems unsatisfying until we ask how else Winton could have exited the story. I couldn't think of a better way; and sometimes an ending is unsatisfactory purely because you don't want a book to end. The ending must often, as any surfer knows (my turn for cod-metaphysics), be the least-worst exit strategy, and the way a good wave ends is not all that important anyway: what counts is everything that came before.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life, and his new novel, Bluebird, will be published in September 2020.

Cover: May 2008

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