December 2018 – January 2019

Arts & Letters

Fair judgement without surrender: Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Arsonist’

By Adam Rivett
The author of ‘The Tall Man’ tries to understand the motivations of a Black Saturday firebug

Uncertainty sits at the heart of Chloe Hooper’s writing. The lovers and mistresses who populate her novels operate under premises and promises that shift on them in a second. To the prosecuted figures at the centre of her nonfiction, Hooper extends a nervous sympathy, inviting the reader to question culpability while never denying the scale of the crimes. The challenge across all her work is this: how to perceive truth and exercise fair judgement without surrendering to inflexibility and simplicity.

While her concerns have remained constant, the approach has shifted. Consider two moments in her work – one old, one new – both arriving late in their respective book.

In A Child’s Book of True Crime, Hooper’s first novel, published in 2002, the narrator, Kate, strikes a sceptical note while pondering the merit of a true crime potboiler written by her lover’s wife, Veronica. She is repelled by the breathless prose expended upon what is, in the end, mere equivocation:

“Perhaps within all of us,” Veronica confessed, “there is an island of the night, and on that island a castaway capable of deeds we’d rather not acknowledge.” Veronica’s castaway was certainly capable of being verbose. The truth of this finale was that its author had no idea what had happened – 315 pages, but all she’d needed to scratch on each was I DON’T KNOW.

And then, in sparer and more clear-eyed prose, a like-minded confession from Hooper herself, three books later:

I have spent years trying to understand this man and what he did, my own motivation sometimes as indecipherable as his. And, I wondered, what if, having asked the police and lawyers dozens of questions, then more questions, trying to get tiny details right, I essentially ended up with little more than a series of impressions? Would the result be ultimately a fiction?

These words are taken from the coda of Hooper’s newest book, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire (Hamish Hamilton; $34.99), her second work of trial reporting after 2008’s rapturously received The Tall Man. Sixteen years and a shift in genre separate the two comments above, but no amount of gently nested ironies – a fictional character critiquing nonfiction in the first instance, a work of reportage admitting its chance of becoming fiction in the second – makes the contrast any less stark. There is in the crudely capped “I DON’T KNOW” an implied failure of nerve. In the self-reproach at her new book’s end, a different note is struck: an admission of the limits of analysis, and the wholesale surrender to subjective impressions.

“This man” Hooper writes of is Brendan Sokaluk. The “what he did” is the lighting of a fire in February 2009, south-east of the Victorian town of Churchill, that contributed to what is now known as Black Saturday, the worst bushfires in Australian history. Sokaluk’s prosecution is detailed in The Arsonist’s final two thirds: “The Lawyers” and “The Courtroom”. Before any of that, however, there is the fire itself, vividly evoked in the book’s long opening stretch, “The Detectives”. At length we toggle between the immediate horror of fast-moving flames and the efforts of Victoria Police’s Arson and Explosives Squad in the fire’s immediate aftermath. These aren’t just detectives – they seek, to echo the book’s subtitle, the mind of the fire: relations, causation, points of origin.

Fire is a beast with a head, back, a rear; its traces are similarly human (“The gum leaves, pliable up to a certain temperature, were like thousands of fingers pointing the way the fire had gone”). Black Saturday is summoned not only in terms of overwhelming force – “the equivalent of 80,000 kilowatts of heat, or 500 atomic bombs” – but also in small moments of devastation, of the physical world utterly undone. Embers the size of dinner plates descend from the sky. A ute’s aluminium tray is reduced to a pool of liquid silver. A man’s hand is so badly burnt its little finger is reduced to jelly, translucent when held up to the light.

In the aftermath of the Churchill fire, suspicion quickly falls on Sokaluk. A resident of the small town in the Latrobe Valley, he is an outcast treated with wariness by many locals, a former volunteer for the Country Fire Authority who displays a fascination with fire and is known to occasionally light ones of his own. He is also autistic with a mild intellectual disability, a 39-year-old man who counts Thomas the Tank Engine among his favourite shows. His arrest and the rumours that abound in the days to follow make him a pariah. A Facebook page, “Brendan Sokaluk Must Burn in Hell”, is created, while another group offers $10,000 to the person who kills the man charged with causing the deaths of 10 people.

For Hooper, the issue is degrees of culpability: the book soon enough hinges not on a question of guilt, but one of intent. Sokaluk is no martyr – in his previous job he would occasionally threaten co-workers, for example – but his solitude and societal isolation, paired with his autism and intellectual impairments, render a seemingly easy moral judgement difficult. His life has been one of constant failure and mockery. By the end of Year 11 he “had passed nothing”, could “barely read or write”. Neighbours and children were “casually cruel: ‘vegie’ or ‘retard’ or ‘spastic’ slid easily off their tongues”. There is a dark irony to his prosecution – as Hooper notes, this was “perhaps the first moment in his life that a group of people had spent time asking him questions, listening to his stories and asides”. Yet his autism and inability to read the room render him frequently unsympathetic to investigators and juries alike – he yawns openly in court, and never seems troubled by the severity of his situation. To those considering his potential guilt, he looks, in Hooper’s words, “entirely vacant”.

There is also the question of his environment – the community that surrounds him, the nature of the land he lives on. The Hazelwood Power Station is nearby, so too the environmental blight of the Latrobe Valley’s brown coal deposits: the biggest in the world, stretching for “sixty-four kilometres in one direction, fifteen kilometres the other, with a depth of 180 metres”. Decay and disrepair abound. The Environment Protection Authority sells local mine operators emergency approvals to pollute. Resultant health concerns go unchecked. Hazelwood becomes an icon for the government’s inaction on climate change. The Valley, in Hooper’s words, becomes “a human sink, a place people ended up”.

At one point in the book, Hooper references Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown”, with its smokestacks “stretching into a dirty sky like the arms of a deity”, but she is also careful to avoid a deterministic reading of Sokaluk’s background. There is no simple answer to the region’s woes, no single point of blame for the man who would commit such devastating acts of arson. As the book progresses, a nation’s disgust is balanced against other immoralities and cruelties. My mind lingers on a small detail Hooper almost throws away: late in the book, deep into Sokaluk’s trial, the Arson Squad reveal the scale of their investigations. An officer tells Hooper they spent month after month investigating potential suspects based solely on reports made by “whoever disliked them”. Another Springsteen line comes to mind, one that could almost serve as an epigraph for the book: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

It’s this diffuse quality – settling on many points but never finding a satisfactory answer – that renders the book distinct from the rage and trauma that fired so much of The Tall Man. Read 10 years after its publication, that book has lost none of its power, or its ability to incite simultaneous mourning and fury in a reader pondering the nation’s betrayal of its Indigenous population. Hooper focuses on a single death, that of Palm Island resident Cameron Doomadgee, and, for the book’s duration, makes it stand for an entire murdered continent:

It seemed to me that concentrating on a white man killing a black man took the nation back to its original sin, as if expurgation of this would stem the river of grog and the tides of violence drowning life in these communities. If we could absolve ourselves of this first sin we might be able to pretend that the later ones – the ones now killing a generation – happened in a realm beyond our reach and responsibility.

For so much of the book’s readership The Tall Man carried a moral lesson, a demand to consider past trauma and enact future change. Despite Hooper’s wariness of pat resolutions in the face of her country’s unconsidered racism, and the subsequent folly of imagining that one moment of justice – in Doomadgee’s case, denied – might set things right, a reader could feel, if even for a moment, an ugliness stared down.

A similar claim for The Arsonist is hard to make. Confronted with Sokaluk’s crimes, and the mess of his life and background (its petty cruelties and grander destructions alike), something as clear as a teachable moment is elusive. Yet this is not, I think, a failure on Hooper’s part. What it suggests is more a shift towards moral irresolvability – into, perhaps, more troubling shades of grey. It’s a shift evident across all of Hooper’s work. In her first novel, flights into fantasy – moments of murder and madness acted out by cutely named animal characters – were neatly italicised and sequestered from the novel’s sturdier reality. In The Engagement, Hooper’s underappreciated second novel, published in 2012, no such separation exists to reassure the reader of what is actual and invented. The narrator’s and the reader’s assurances are similarly rearranged.

Unlike so many true crime publications and podcasts, to fully engage The Arsonist doesn’t require positioning oneself as an amateur sleuth in cahoots with the author. The book doesn’t seek to exonerate Sokaluk or, to put it melodramatically, bring new information to light. It instead looks painstakingly at the deed and the participant, without illusions or sentimentality. There will doubtless be numerous readers who feel Hooper’s sympathies and attentions might have been more profitably directed towards another figure, that such an approach brings many victims nothing but pain. Perhaps Brendan Sokaluk and his crimes carry, even under well-intentioned analysis, too great a burden of suffering. But perhaps, like Hooper’s admission at her own work’s end, we must nonetheless proceed in the belief that our attempts at understanding – our fiction-lined facts – hold up under the weight.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

© Paul Crock / Getty Images

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