December 2023 – January 2024

Noted

Richard Flanagan's ‘Question 7’

By Michael Williams
Cover of ‘Question 7’
A slim volume of big ideas that takes in H.G. Wells, chain reaction, Hiroshima and the author’s near-death experience on the Franklin River

In his new book, Question 7 (Knopf Australia), Richard Flanagan is intensely alive to the connection between things. He has always been an author with an eye on cause and effect, on the echoes of history and the endurance of myth and story – and the ways that our lives and choices are never lived in a vacuum. He’s at his best here: this is a thrilling read, a simultaneously expansive and precise stream of consciousness, which finds Flanagan exploring the porousness of literary category and definition to playfully grapple with some big questions.

It’s autofiction, maybe? It’s not memoir or essay entirely, and it has the energy and thrust of a novel. But maybe none of that matters. One of the many connections that pop up within its slim pages is the irrelevance of literary fashion and judgement. The Chekhov story that gives the book its name, for example, is a brief comic portrait tossed off by the literary great for some quick money. Elsewhere, an H.G. Wells thought exercise – the product of romantic and existential angst – might have invented the nuclear chain reaction and changed the fate of the world, but it was critically dismissed as a lesser work.

In an ultimate nod to the futility of literary judgement in determining value, the book even takes as its epigraph a negative 1851 Hobart Town Mercury review of Moby-Dick: “The author has not given his effort here the benefit of knowing whether it is history, autobiography, gazetteer, tragedy, romance, almanac, melodrama or fantasy. It may be myriad, it may not. The question is put, but where is the answer?”

It’s a fun snubbing of the nose at reviewers and their myopia, but it also captures the eclecticism of what Flanagan is trying here. Late in the book, Flanagan lays out in a run-on sentence the rolling logic of Question 7 in a microcosm. It begins: “Without Rebecca West’s kiss H. G. Wells would not have run off to Switzerland to write a book in which everything burns”. What follows, over an entire page, is a list that takes in Leo Szilard and Einstein and Roosevelt and the Manhattan Project and Thomas Ferebee pulling a lever and Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the death of hundreds of thousands, and the survival and return from war of Archie Flanagan, Richard’s father. The effect is vertiginous, to say the least.

“Poetry may make nothing happen,” Flanagan concludes, “but a novel destroyed Hiroshima and without Hiroshima there is no me and these words erase themselves and me with them.” One of the real achievements of this book is how lightly it wears that complex interplay of the geopolitical, the historical and the personal. Because as tangled and varied as the allusions within these pages are, this is an intimate and personal work.

There’s a strong sense of the elegiac. Flanagan is grieving lost people, a lost time. He is writing into the “autumn of things” and grieving his parents, the natural world, the Tasmania of his youth. He’s grieving the dark stain of Australian history, grieving war and death. The portraits of his father, familiar from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and his mother (echoes of whom could be felt in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams) are beautiful and suffused with love. His mother’s mother, known as Mate, is also tenderly sketched.

“Experience is but a moment” he writes more than once. “Making sense of that moment is a life.” Explicitly sharing that process of sense-making with his readers, Flanagan is in total command here. The final section of the book is the gripping account of his near-death experience, trapped upside down in the rapids on the Franklin River many decades ago. It’s a piece of personal history he’s sharing for the first time, and its relationship with his 1994 debut novel, Death of a River Guide, is as moving as it is arresting.

Across Question 7, Flanagan’s guiding metaphor is the daisy chain – or more precisely the nuclear chain reaction – between events and their outcome, and the endless delicate conditionality of things. But he also brings in a Yolngu idea introduced to him by young essayist Siena Stubbs: a fourth tense that sees time in a less-linear fashion. Utilising this idea – “the past is in the present is in the future” – this book swirls in on itself. Its big ideas inform one another and are informed by each other, creating a loop rather than the straight lines of history: parents and ancestors, massacres past, stories told and retold, love affairs both doomed and enduring, a disappearing world and a search for meaning. What’s more, it ends with laughter.

Michael Williams

Is the editor of The Monthly.

Cover of ‘Question 7’

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