‘Old radicals become quietist’ a character in Valley of the Weed tells Plant, the appropriately-named private detective investigating the disappearance of a high-profile academic. ‘They stop socialising. Stay at home and surrender to the comforting millenarian conviction that change will come, but in its own time.’ One who has not surrendered is Michael Wilding, ex-vanguardist of Australia’s 1970s ‘new writing’, a post-modernist before the term existed, but now through force of events transmuting unwillingly into a kind of cultural conservative. Notwithstanding his differences with the Australia of forty years ago, he is anguished by its present etiolation, and detests the looming ‘rational’ robotism in which everything Western can be automated and alienated, commodified and controlled.
The establishment Wilding lacerated or lampooned was long ago captured by its enemies, and ideas then thought revolutionary have ossified into the intolerant orthodoxy of The Cathedral. But old enemies have returned, if anything in greater strength – censorship, conformity, ignorance and nastiness. Now the iconoclastic litterateur satirises PC pearl-clutchers and priests as gleefully as once he impaled mainstream politicians or real-life Edna Everages. Valley of the Weed is the latest of some fifty books by Wilding, all of them remarkably adding something to, or defending, the Western canon. This book is dedicated to Barry Spurr, one of Australia’s most eminent victims of the ultra-Left’s Two Minute Hates. (Wilding also paid tribute to Spurr last year, in an essay on Milton’s Samson Agonistes – another poetical thinker who fell out with his times – for The Free Mind, the Festschrift produced to protest that despicable defenestration.) This is the fourth novel to feature Plant, who is sketchily delineated, but seems in some ways a simulacrum of the author – cultivated, a disillusioned radical, an un-dogmatic observer of trends, and would-be righter of wrongs.
Plant is asked by a retired professor with links to the intelligence services to find out what has happened to Tim Vicars, a well-known academic who has been looking into whether marijuana ought be legalised, but is then vilified when some of his emails sent over his university server are published by a leftwing website. These contain ‘the forbidden words… racist and sexist and homophobic stuff’, so naturally the university fires him to show it shares the same ‘elevated values’ as the students (and divert attention from controversial cost-cutting and department closures). ‘We have a word for everything’ Plant notes stolidly, but there are some we are no longer permitted to pronounce. In an ostensibly ever-freer era, the cockily confident speech celebrated by Sidney J. Baker is ironically shrinking back into itself, its speakers looking increasingly over their shoulders in fear of a visit from the Australian Offence Forces.
Vicars’ banishment and vanishment brings to light a convoluted sexual life, and a mass of contradictions and enigmas about his character, modern academe, drugs laws, the secret state, civil liberties, abuses of the internet, media bias, the literary world, and political correctness – in short the whole tenor of 21st century Australia as it transitions from mateship to tense modernity. The ambiguity that engulfs everything is reinforced by Wilding’s technique of raising possibilities without offering answers, foresting action and dialogue with question marks. He also provides Plant with an interlocutor named Fullalove, who combines recondite knowledge and great articulacy with acute paranoia (exacerbated by cannabis use).
Wilding has an interest in conspiracies going back to the 1970s, and a rare knowledge of arcana and esotericism as far back as John Dee, so every situation is open to almost endless interpretations, depending on one’s perspective, or perhaps the levels of tetrahydrocannibinol in their blood.
Almost everyone in Plant’s un-Lucky Country is manipulated or manipulator, confused or cunning, mixed in their motives, in some way suspect.
Why was Plant asked to investigate in the first place? Why has Vicars taken such an interest in marijuana, and who stands to gain or lose by any change in policy? Why did he use those ‘frightful words’ on a server he must have known would be monitored – misplaced humour, psychological safety-valve, or a deep plan to extricate himself from intolerable pressures? The ‘libertarian anarchist’ editrix who doxxes Vicars has highly pragmatic politics, moving from Left to Right and back to Left, following the culture (or is she shaping it?). Who sent her the emails? Why did she take such prurient relish in publishing them? Has some secret part of her always wanted to say those words herself? Is she really interested in social betterment – or is it actually all about her? Even the weather at times descends to disorientate, Plant staring out from Vicars’ apartment into a fog where ‘even absence was obliterated’. He longs, like so many others, for a clearer view, some return to form and narrative, a move away from self-realisation to society, a recrudescence of meaning, the end of post-modernity and its post-truth by-blow.
All this may sound forbiddingly worthy, but the undoubted import is delivered with ease, bejewelled with sparkling imagery – ‘she looked up like an indignant bird, one of the smaller ones, interrupted in eating crumbs’ – and mordantly witty insights into how we live, and a few of the reasons why. Raising possibilities includes raising the possibility of escape, but Wilding is non-prescriptive almost to a fault. He offers no neat solution to Plant’s case – and no easy answers to any problems, except to be aware of what is (or might be) happening, at most a turning off rather than on, a tuning out rather than in, and a dropping out, and off the grid. Luckily for lovers of good fiction and good societies, he will never pursue this quietist course himself, but keep on instead adding new new writing to our old, helping in his engaging, unpretentious way to reinvest the West with sorely-needed significance.