Australians aren’t really known for hard-boiled, noir fiction, partly perhaps because their country is so dammed sunny. If we’re gonna go the whole hog and use some national stereotyping, let’s say we expect Australians to be care-free, relaxed and outdoors kinda people (if you’re not, my Antipodean friend, I want my money back). But when you think about it a little more, it does make sense that an Australian could write a Chandler-esque novel quite well (and in this case, better than well) because the flipside is that Australia is a tough and testing country. The weather can be relentless, the wild-life may kill ya and it’s one helluva big place. Still, sunshine, blonde beer and blonde girls convince me otherwise. When do we emigrate darling?
Andrez Bergen is Australian and he’s the author of “Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat”. It’s post-apocalyptic and post-modern noir, in itself an unusual concept. Whilst Raymond Chandler may have been frustrated with the strict formula demanded by his editors, Bergen is fortunate to now be in a time in which publishers can take more of a gamble on a novel which subverts the genre it is inspired by. Bergen does this by futuristically updating the form, so he can write into, and out of, his imagination. There’s lots of brain-space in this book, but not so much to put you off if you usually steer away from science fiction. The novel has futuristic elements, but is still grounded in the human.
The hard-drinking, hard-boiled and witty hero, Floyd, would usually be the detective in a Chandler story but here in the “new” Melbourne, post-event, he’s placed in a bubble-like world as a “Seeker”, with more authority than a Chander detective, to seek, locate, apprehend, contain and terminate Deviants. As someone who spends most of his time with deviants of one type or another, I can understand why Floyd hates his job. Similarly it seems Bergen had experience of identifying with outsiders before writing this novel, working “a mind-numbing corporate job at an ad hoc government/private body, and it was there that I crossed paths with “Activities” (real but semi-illegal video surveillance we organized of car accident victims doing aerobics and the like). The Guide to Deviant Apprehension & Containment was roughly modelled on the corporate tome I had to learn by rote” (Bergen says). In “Mountain Goat” the Bill of Deviations has been backed, or pushed, by Wolram E. Deaps, CEO of the Hylax Corporation. And there’s no particular definition of deviancy, so it’s potentially all-encompassing.
Chandler’s heroes have to fight the system to get some resolution and Bergen’s hero is no different. He’s only doing the job to pay his sick wife’s hospital bills, and he never gets to see her. He lives with the nagging fear of being “relocated” but somehow can’t keep his acerbic mouth shout. He’s constantly in trouble with authority, despite being in authority himself. And just as in Chandler’s novels, the hero’s instincts usually turn out to be correct.
Ultimately however what makes this book a good read is not plot nor form, but observation, wit and dialogue. Bergen clearly enjoys language (“the phone was beeping in its tinny, hysterical manner”). If you like hard-boiled humour and one-liners, this novel’s for you:
“I slunk home sometime around noon – though my watch was not to be trusted given that it was an archaic Japanese wind-up toy with a life expectancy intended to break kid’s hearts”.
There’s an element of absurdism throughout the book because of the particular world the characters now inhabit. Despite there being a “world” cricket team, it’s entirely made up of Australians (who play the “named” Australian team) as there’s nobody else left. The society which remains is shallow and consumerist (and I would suggest not because they’re Australian). Floyd’s almost zen-buddhist approach to life is therefore in strong contrast to what is around him (it’s perhaps noteworthy Bergen now lives in Asia). Plastic surgery is taken to the nth degree, and gadgets abound:
“I picked up what I thought to be an alien torture device, then twigged it was an electric toilet brush. A central display featured a silver toaster that looked a bit like it could do your taxes”.
The setting also means that if an individual has some form of ethics they stand out even more. Floyd tells Deaps that the fictional detectives “Spade and Marlowe had a certain approach to things – I guess you could call it a gritty combination of honour and integrity that coloured their actions. It’s something I always respected.” This is what Floyd himself embodies, and Bergen gives us examples of his hero putting himself out for others, and taking personal risks for others’ benefit.
In the background of a wasteland, Bergen makes as many allusions to film as TS Eliot made to literature. There’s a useful “Encylopedia Tobacciana” at the end of the novel which you can check out if you’re not sure what a reference is to, and similarly a glossary for the slang contained in the novel. These add to the sense of the quirky, as does the calligraphy in the book itself and the typeset. Chandler could perhaps be scratching his head about some of this, safe up in heaven-dead, but his own writing always struck me as kind of idiosyncratic, and we’re living in different times now brother. In a modern age of conspiracies and corporate agglomerates, I think he’d be pleased as to where Bergen has taken his legacy, even though Chandler said himself that an age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of decadence.
I asked Bergen some questions, and here are the answers, as well as the questions:
Charles Pitter: Would it be a bold proposition to say that, as an expatriate Australian, “Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat” is your vision of a country “gone wrong”? To a whinging pom who always thought it could be paradise, what is your take on modern Australia?
Andrez Bergen: To tackle the first part of your question, I think the recent undercurrents shaping things out there in the “real” world weighed in on my subconscious during the rewrites of the novel, particularly over the period 2005-2009. But the vision of this future dystopia is one that’s lurked in my imagination since I was a teenager, probably after too many viewings of the original “Planet of the Apes”, “Blade Runner”, “Brazil”, “Catch-22”, “The Omega Man”, “A Clockwork Orange”, and their ilk. Then there’s the bleak examinations of society that come across in Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out”, Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog”, Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole”, and so on. Put them together and you get trouble. I’m not sure being Australian added that much impetus, although the weather in Melbourne is notoriously patchier than picture-postcard places like the Gold Coast. The city in “Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat”, to my mind, could be any Western metropolis – in the original versions I left it unnamed, but a part of me always felt it was Melbourne. Having lived in Tokyo for a decade, I got nostalgic for my hometown and decided to make that the setting. Besides, Melbourne’s played last city before, in Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach”.
As for the second part of the question, the truth is that I love Australia whenever I go back, and I feel lucky I grew up there. To my mind it’s also improved since I left in 2001. There are some concerns I have related to social, political and economic aspects that I’d say reflect the global shift rather than anything intrinsically “Australian”. Then again, we’ve always fretted about something. When I was a kid it was the Cold War, pollution and tiger snakes – now it’s social upheaval, global warming and tiger snakes. Those snakes are the only unique things to worry about Downunder.
Charles Pitter: Where did the idea come from to combine detective noir and apocalypse? Do you read science fiction?
Andrez Bergen: Second part first: I think you might’ve guessed from the novel that I’m more of an avid watcher than reader. Part of that comes from my journalism (I do a lot of hack movie reviews) and part of it came from my parents’ love of cinema – but they also encouraged me to settle down in a comfy chair occasionally with a book. I’m a slow reader, but prolific, and strangely enough I’m less selective about books than I am with DVDs. I’ll read anything. Scarily.
I always had a soft spot for sci-fi, though I don’t read so much now. Back in primary school I adored Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and by high school I was into “Dune”, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick. I think sci-fi films have been more of a lasting influence. “Blade Runner” is an obvious influence – I’ve seen it dozens of times – and I love the collusion of styles, which do include sci-fi and noir. But there are other, older sci-fi movies that made an impression, from “Things to Come to The Thing from Another World”. You know, the usual suspects like “2001”, “Soylent Green”, “Fahrenheit 451”.
But at the same time I’ve had an ongoing love of noir. As writers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler stand out for me, and I grew up watching old black-and-whites with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Peter Lorre, Dick Powell, Edward G. Robinson and – of course – George Sanders. As time went by, “Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat” became less sci-fi and more noir, possibly because noir is dateless whereas sci-fi has a use-by date.
In the time I was writing TSMG, the year 2001 came and went, as did 2010. 1999 – the year the Moon was supposed to break orbit from Earth according to “Space: 1999” – went by and nothing cataclysmic happened. Before we know it, it’ll be 2019 and we’ll all know how prescient “Blade Runner” was.
Charles Pitter: How does living in different countries influence you, from a writer’s perspective?
Andrez Bergen: Well, it definitely broadens horizons, introduces unforeseen elements, and means you can pluck from cross-cultural stimuli. Living in London then Tokyo weighed heavily on the development of TSMG, and in fact the next novel I’m working on is mostly set in Japan from 1929 on. As an expat, sometimes you feel what it’s like to be a true outsider, in a foreign culture and alien landscape – and that can be invigorating.
Charles Pitter: Do you sit down (or stand up) to write every day, or do you work in sudden bursts of enthusiasm, only when inspired?
Andrez Bergen: Anywhere anytime is my crap motto – I’m constantly writing and editing on bits of scrap paper in the train, at work, out on the street, in the rain, in the loo. I do try to be orderly and sit down at a desk for a session of writing, but if I’m not in the mood social networking and looking up things on Wikipedia, like the Black Death or Eleanor of Aquitaine, distract me.
When I’m working on a novel, like I am now, this is mostly a daily thing, but between publishing TSMG and starting on this one I barely wrote any fiction at all for a few months. I tried to focus instead on my six-year-old daughter, writing a bunch of articles, music production, and that evil necessity – the propaganda barrage of promotion and marketing that we put TSMG through.
Charles Pitter: What are you working on at the moment?
Andrez Bergen: I’m currently pottering on my next novel, titled “One Hundred Years of Vicissitude”, with an apology to Gabriel Garcia Márquez. It’s still in the planning stage – here read a chaotic shamble of ideas – but it’s looking like the narrator is going to be Wolram E. Deaps, the antagonist from TSMG. Otherwise the two novels will share only a minor amount in terms of story, direction and style. I want “One Hundred Years of Vicissitude” to be a stand-alone piece.
I’m also continuing with music (a long-time hobby) and the journalism thing, though the print magazines I’ve written for have dropped like flies in recent years thanks to the Internet.
I have a few other half-baked ideas, but I’d better not let the cat out of the sack at this early stage.
Charles Pitter: Do you think life is mostly hard-boiled or soft-boiled?
Andrez Bergen: Funnily enough I like eggs done the two ways – depends on my mood – so I’ll opt for both in terms of life itself. It can be hard, depressing, unfair and confusing, but also oddly inspired, hilarious and uplifting. Regardless of the atmosphere that dominates a hefty chunk of TSMG, I’ve always had a positive view of the future. I think it’s just easier to tweak the negative sometimes.