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Protest and Antipolitics in Contemporary Australian Fiction Tim .rtf


									    Protest and Antipolitics in Contemporary Australian Fiction: Tim Winton, Amanda Lohrey and
                                           Victor Kelleher

                                              Rodney Smith
                                      University of New South Wales


The idea that literary fiction can illuminate topics in political science and political theory in distinctive
ways has recently gained ground. These topics include the interaction of political attitudes and emotions
and moral dilemmas entailed in political action. This paper discusses the ways in which three recent
Australian novels--Tim Winton's Shallows, Amanda Lohrey's The Reading Group, and Victor Kelleher's
Wintering--allow new explorations of the sources, possibilities and limitations of protest and other
political action. It argues that the novels all exemplify varieties of the antipolitical themes identified by
Andreas Schedler and others as permeating recent Western political thought. They ultimately depict
political protest and involvement as futile and less valuable than other human activities. The paper
explores the literary techniques utilised by the authors in these antipolitical depictions.


Political scientists and political theorists have been reluctant to draw on literary fiction as a source for
understanding Australian politics. At the same time, contemporary Australian fiction provides an
increasingly rich and diverse body of political plots, themes and characters (Gelder and Salzman 1989,
Ch. 11).
          This reluctance to engage with fiction may limit our understanding of Australian politics
(Whitebrook 1995, 60). Traditional questionnaire-based social scientific research has made heavy
weather of understanding individuals’ involvement in political protest (see, for example, Bean 1991;
Stenner-Day and Fischle 1992). Among the key conceptual problems of this research is its tendency to
see individuals as fixed entities who remain more or less likely to protest regardless of circumstances.
Narrative based research such as in-depth interview studies set in historical contexts suggest that decisions
to protest are much more contextualised and involve complex social, ideological and emotional
commitments (see, for example, Epstein 1991). Literary fiction can focus on just such contexts and
          The rest of this paper explores the representation of political protest in three recent Australian
novels, Amanda Lohrey’s The Reading Group, Victor Kelleher’s Wintering and Tim Winton’s Shallows.
Each novel contextualises protest actions and suggests emotional and ideological complexities behind
participation in political protest. The three novels also engage in different ways with themes that Andreas
Schedler (1997), among others, has described as ‘antipolitics’.

Protest in The Reading Group

The action of The Reading Group mostly takes place in an Australian state capital. The novel is set in a
future that is also recognisably 1980s Australia (76, 133, 205; see also Riemer 1988; Knight 1989; Gelder
and Salzman 1989, 260).1 The city is ringed by bush fires (41, 77-8, 98, 101, 124). Political protests
largely centre on draconian new government emergency laws directed at controlling the ‘Plague Bearers’,
a growing group of the young urban jobless and homeless (13, 43, 46-7, 66-7, 110, 123, 162, 212, 237,
249). The state government is a coalition including ‘the Party’, a Labor Party look-alike led by a ‘tanned,
nuggety’ ex-unionist who has had a conversion to healthy living and enjoys lying by the pool (202-3).
         No large-scale protests against the emergency powers are actually depicted in the novel.
Instead, they are referred to as having taken place in the past, sometimes ‘long ago’ (43), or as being
planned for the future. A protest group exists, which draws its numbers from students, unionists and

  All references to page numbers without further bibliographical details indicate passages in the main
novel being discussed.
members of the Party (9, 74, 53, 182, 252). The group is waiting for the state government to announce its
legislation before launching its protests (177, 181). The coalition government keeps procrastinating
(108, 113-4, 123, 246-54). At the conclusion of the novel, the Premier has once more put off a decision
on the legislation (254). The demonstrators have repeatedly met but never actually taken to the streets.
          The emergency powers also have active supporters in the community, particularly the Committee
for Public Safety led by the ‘distinguished’ Professor Will Grainger--poet, organist and ‘former colonial
administrator’ (48, 53). The Committee arranges mass public rallies in support of the emergency powers
and New Nation. Its aim is to ‘control’ the streets, for which purpose it is training vigilantes (55-6, 122).
Ironically, its main rally for public safety disintegrates into ‘panic’, ‘rampage’ and ‘teargas’ (221-4).
          A third protest force is made up of small groups like the ‘Loved Ones’ and the ‘Metropolitan
Indians’ (71, 133, 139-41). Unlike the more specific goals of the anti-emergency powers demonstrators
or the conservative values of the Committee for Public Safety, these groups are revolutionary anarchists.
The Metropolitan Indians publicly burn consumer goods and distribute ‘fake subway tickets, fake cinema
tickets and keys to open telephone boxes and traffic lights’ (133).
          None of the protesters gains victory or suffers defeat in The Reading Group. The
anti-emergency powers demonstrators and the Committee for Public Safety remain locked in intermittent
battle. The trials of the leaders of the anarchist groups are unresolved (257-8). The success or otherwise
of the New Nation program is undetermined. Rather than contributing to the solution of political
problems, the protests are symptomatic of what Lohrey has called an on-going sense of ‘menace’ in
society (Lohrey 1990, 215-6; see also Riemer 1988; Gelder and Salzman 1989, 260).

Protest participants in The Reading Group

Lohrey describes very few of the protest participants in any detail. Most of the central characters of the
novel are in their late twenties or early thirties. They are linked by relationships, friendships and
common past experiences. All are members of the Party and have been participants in a political reading
group (29-32). As tertiary educated professionals and managers--or in Claire’s case, the wife of a
professional--they form part of the new middle class (9, 12, 16, 22, 25, 27, 29, 30, 35, 138).
           Of these characters, only Sam seems to be actively involved in the anti-emergency powers
protests. His enjoyment of politics rarely flags and politics seems to permeate most aspects of his life.
Sam is an enthusiastic member of the Party (16, 32). Although Claire initiates the reading group (29-32),
it is Sam who ‘pulls’ the group along when they get bogged down in dense political economy texts (33-4).
He hosts an annual ‘Remembrance Day Republic Party’ and tennis tournament, complete with political
skits and parodies of nationalist songs (144-9). The Reading Group offers no explanation for Sam’s
immersion in politics--he is simply a complete political being.
           Political protest activity invigorates his sexual relations with his partner Renata (53). Renata is
emotionally and aesthetically committed to the protests, although she seems not to attend rallies or
meetings. The attraction of protests for her is that they act as ‘fissures in the skin, widening into wounds'
(182), disrupting the stage-managed nature of party politics.
           The Committee for Public Safety protesters are not described. Grainger is too sophisticated to
be involved in street protests (224-5). Perhaps the Committee-inspired rioters are city versions of the
farmers, workers and small businesspeople--proud of their guns and hostile to government--who feature in
the first ‘New Nation festival’ at the rural town of Linna (112-20).
           The anarchist protesters in the Loved Ones and the Metropolitan Indians are young. Lohrey
suggests that the Metropolitan Indians’ protests may be a kind of extended student prank of the wealthy:
‘they are playful; they have means of support’ (133). By contrast, the young Plague Bearers against
whom the laws are directed do not have the resources or imagination to engage in protest. Their menace
is purely criminal (14-5, 47, 90, 162-4).
           This notion of protest politics as a wealthy youthful flirtation with danger and excitement seems
to underlie the non-involvement of the members of the reading group. Some, like the ministerial staffer
Michael, are committed to other forms of political action (35, 43, 64) Others have developed alternatives
to political action (see also Lohrey 1990, 211). Lyndon, for example, finds his ‘utopia’ in a stream of
sexual encounters (268). Claire devotes herself to her house (257-61). Andrew is drawn into political
life only by his criminal law practice (150, 257-8). Robert puts his energies into saving individual Plague
Bearers (183-5).

Protest and anti-politics in The Reading Group

Protest occupies an ambiguous place in The Reading Group. On the one hand, the protests over the
emergency powers seem to be effective, at least in preventing the government from introducing the laws
immediately. On the other hand, the novel suggests that it does not matter whether the legislation is
introduced or not. The middle class characters seem unlikely to be affected by it, while the Plague
Bearers are already caught in terrible lives. Political protest may not matter because politics does not
fundamentally change things (see also Lohrey 1990, 210).
          For the middle class characters in The Reading Group at least, there are easier and more certain
ways of transforming their lives to be found in the private utopias of sex, drugs or home renovations.
Lohrey is not unsympathetic to protesters like Sam; however, she does not give his political involvement a
privileged place in her novel (see also Knight 1989, 206). His way of dealing with life is just one among
          Andreas Schedler (1997) has identified four major types of contemporary antipolitical thought.
These are stresses on self-regulation over collective action, uniformity over plurality, inevitable necessity
over contingent political outcomes and ‘anything goes’ over authority. While The Reading Group is not
entirely antipolitical, it can be read as containing three of these themes. The retreat to private utopias in
the novel might be seen as confirming the first and fourth themes, while the unimportance of politics
against an externally imposed necessity seems to align with the third theme.
          In contemporary political thought and fiction, this crushing necessity is usually seen to derive
from ‘the nearly overwhelming dynamic of the market economy’ (Schedler 1997, 7). The Reading Group
at least partly sides with those who dismiss the possibilities of effective political protest against economic
necessity. It does so on two related levels: imaginatively or ideologically, as the economic forces become
incomprehensible to members of the reading group (32), and socially, in its depiction of the economy’s
apparently unstoppable production of Plague Bearers.

Techniques in The Reading Group

Lohrey experiments with literary techniques in her novels (see Riemer 1988; Knight 1989; Lohrey 1990).
Three techniques seem particularly important to her depiction of political protest.
         The first is the novel’s setting in a future-present. This means political details from 1980s
Australian life (the Labor Party, the Bicentenary, the unemployment policy crisis) are both recognisable
and yet disconcertingly unfamiliar. Rather than allowing readers comfortably to apply preconceptions
about political events and forces they feel they know, the novel invites readers to re-evaluate their political
understandings and commitments.
         A second and related technique is the inconclusive manner in which political events are narrated.
They have no clear beginnings or endings, causes or solutions. This technique found in the depiction of
the bush fires that surround the city without apparently seriously endangering it. These bush fires are at
least partly metaphorical. Are the fires, or the social problems they represent, dangerous or not? Can
they be safely ignored, as most of the characters appear to think, or do they need to be confronted?
         The third technique is the multiple voices heard in the novel. A wide range of characters is
allowed to reflect and speak. Lyndon the sleazy sexual predator and Glenn the Plague Bearer are the
only characters who speak directly to the reader. Lyndon is given the last words of the novel. These
features may be viewed as giving the novel ‘bleak’ political conclusions (Riemer 1988; see also Lohrey
1990, 211-2, 216). On the other hand, readers can align themselves with the more positively political
perspectives in the novel, such as those of Sam and Renata.

Protest in Wintering

Wintering is set in 1987 and 1988, with the action divided between the New England Tablelands and
Sydney. Three protests are presented in the novel: Aboriginal protests during Australia’s Bicentennary
year; the actions of a group of radicals in New England who plan to irradiate the area’s water supply as a
warning against impending nuclear holocaust and more generally to protest against ‘the system’; and the
anti-Vietnam War student protests of the 1960s. These protests thus centre on important conflicts
surrounding Australian national identity.

         The three sets of protests are also linked by the way they act as devices to bring together the
central characters of the novel. The narrator, Jack Rudd, follows his new friend Benny from Cairns to the
isolated New England house where the radical activists are waiting for action. Benny knows some of the
radicals from their anti-Vietnam War protests (20-22). In those earlier days, he was the lover of the
Aboriginal activist Bridget Fitzpatrick, now one of the radicals (20, 42, 87). Jack becomes attracted to
Bridget. The two start a relationship marred by deep misunderstandings. One of their conflicts centres
on Jack’s scepticism over Bridget’s claim that in the early nineteenth century whites massacred most of
her tribe in the area, forcing them to jump from a nearby cliff (78-80). Benny falls out with the other
radicals when he discovers their plans to engage in radiation terrorism. He is bashed and left for dead,
while the radicals dump the radioactive material over the cliff (132-135, 150, 161-162). Jack leaves for
Sydney, where he divides his time between watching over the comatose Benny in hospital and attempting
to make contact with Bridget, efforts she and her Aboriginal lover Dave resist. These efforts draw Jack
into contact with Aboriginal protests on Australia Day and against landlords and police in inner-Sydney
Redfern (61-65, 136, 144-145, 185-186).
         As the above account suggests, protest actions in Wintering generally act as contexts in which the
central characters work through personal issues that have developed between them. These issues have
arisen partly from past collective political practices like colonialism but their possible resolutions are seen
to rest with individual actions. The central preoccupations of the novel--Jack’s attempts to gain Bridget’s
love and their guilt over Benny--are both resolved in individualistic terms. Protest as a form of collective
power is not given space in the novel since it is irrelevant to these individualistic preoccupations.

Protesters in Wintering

Kelleher represents two main types of participants in protest politics. The first are people whose identity
requires protest rhetoric and actions. Bridget is one of these. Her fierce rhetoric of indigenous
dispossession and struggle, as well as her daily participation in Aboriginal activist politics, seem partly to
be defences against challenges to her aboriginality. With relatively pale skin and an uncertain family
history, Bridget is vulnerable to taunts like Jack’s, that ‘She’s no more black than I am’ (4), an accusation
later repeated by his Aboriginal rival Dave (166). Her participation in protest is a way of escaping her
ambiguous position. It keeps alive the voices of living and dead Aboriginal people while establishing her
identity with them. As she argues of the dead, ‘They need us as much as we need them’ (92).
          The leader of the radicals, Van, is another character for whom protest seems integral in
establishing identity. A long-term drop-out, Van is a mocking and sinister drunkard. He has spent the
decades since the 1960s polishing an ironic protest rhetoric (22, 38, 104). Van is charismatic, drawing
other radicals to his cause (35-37). The fact that he loses his nerve when he is finally presented with his
chosen means to execute change, throwing the radioactive material away rather than releasing it into the
dam as planned, suggests that his identity has become centred on a safe rhetoric of protest activism rather
than political action itself.
          For the other type of protest participant in Wintering, political action is accidental, or at least
incidental to life. Benny and Jack are clear examples. Benny, a Buddhist, was involved in the Vietnam
War protests, possibly as a conscientious objector. Since then, however, he seems to have had no contact
with political action. A drifter, his life revolves around the discipline of meditation (23). Kelleher gives
few clues as to what draws him back to his former fellow protesters, other than that their New England
house lies on his route to the south from Cairns.
          Jack has no obvious political commitments. Although his father accused him of ‘bolshie’
politics in his youth (89), since then he seems to have been apolitical. He tags along with Benny to the
New England house and stays on because of his fixation with Bridget. His attendance and behaviour at
the Aboriginal protests in Sydney stem from his desire for Bridget and his hostility toward Dave. During
one wild demonstration he begins grappling with Dave, ensuring the latter’s arrest (144-145). Jack is a
participant in several protests, but his involvement is purely opportunistic.

Antipolitics in Wintering

Two of Schedler’s antipolitical themes--the over-shadowing of contingency by necessity and the favouring
of self-regulation over public action--are important in Wintering. Traditional religious conceptions of
determinism occur throughout the novel, particularly in Kelleher’s use of the Buddhist motif of the wheel

of life that individuals cannot control and of the idea that peace and freedom only occur through death
(see, for example, 170, 176-8, 180-2). Although religious determinism does not entirely rule out political
action--Benny has been an anti-war protester and remains committed to peaceful political action and
democratic participation--it marginalises it.
          A second type of necessity presented in the novel derives from the immensity of global political
forces. According to Van and his followers, the superpowers and multinationals render conventional
political action such as peaceful protest futile. Only violence can have any effect. Kelleher does not
positively endorse this view, since he puts it into the mouth of Van and has the more sympathetically
portrayed Benny and the narrator Jack oppose it. Moreover, even Van is unwilling to put his rhetoric of
violence into action when given the opportunity. Nonetheless, Benny’s arguments against Van do not
construct an effective alternative depiction of contemporary politics in which non-violent protest can
achieve change (70-6). Politics is marginal to the practice of Benny’s life. If Van’s interpretation of
politics leads to immobilisation because of reluctance to engage in violence, Benny’s leads to relative
political passivity.
          Perhaps the more important antipolitical theme in Wintering is the enlarged space it gives to the
private sphere to resolve human dilemmas. The novel is peopled with outsiders who struggle through
problems in their own ways. The setting of much of the novel in isolated New England and the
warren-like lanes of inner-city Sydney reinforces the characters’ remoteness from arenas of collective
problem-solving. Jack’s approach to life is almost entirely one of self-regulation, typified by his itinerant
travels and easy resort to violence. He pursues a private war with Dave in their conflict over Bridget, in
which the two men regularly bash each other before reaching a respectful truce. Even where he
encounters publicly-imposed order in the hospital system he manages to circumvent its procedures to his
own ends, taking the ending of Benny’s life literally into his own hands.
          If self-regulation allows people to resolve their problems, the sphere of public action seems only
to erect barriers between people. This is most clearly demonstrated in Jack’s relationship with Bridget.
Her resistance to him is political: a white man like Jack cannot understand her or her story. Jack’s
determination to show she is wrong means shifting her thoughts from the public sphere to a personal one
where race is less important (26-7, 31-2, 45, 68).
          He painfully achieves this goal, partly by writing an imagined account of the contact between
Bridget’s white and black forebears. Although Jack’s account features the organised massacre of
Bridget’s people, the ground of the story quickly shifts to the relationship between a white man and the
sole female survivor of the massacre. The man has helped rescue her but has also raped and bound her
and given her syphilis. He believes he has a ‘shared destiny’ with the woman. An outcast in his own
society, he becomes increasingly ill. He still tries to care for the woman, bringing her food, building her
a hut and delivering their child. Although the woman tries to fling the pale baby away, she finds she
cannot. She both rejects the man and pities him, pushing him over the cliff ‘to put an end to his misery’,
an end he welcomes (82-6, 94-101, 123-8, 169-70, 178-9).
          Repeating these qualities of persistence, clumsy tenderness and self-sacrifice in his own
approaches to Bridget, Jack breaks down her resistance, so that she responds to him as an individual.
The novel’s ending suggests that this shift from public to private has erased the past and heralds a new
future, an ‘undiscovered land’, as Bridget and Jack lie together in her room under the Aboriginal flag

Techniques in Wintering

Victor Kelleher has written fiction across several genres (see Peek 1992), and he uses a range of literary
techniques within Wintering. For understanding political protest and antipolitics in the novel, the most
important set of techniques is his use of dreams, nightmares and dream language.
         Dreams occur throughout the novel. Jack recounts several of his own dreams (see, for example,
167). He attempts to imagine the Benny’s dreams while the latter is in his coma, hoping that they are not
nightmares (86-8). Much of the action of the novel occurs in the dreamlike settings of night and frozen
whiteness. As narrator, Jack is often unsure of what has actually occurred. His many questions and
uncertain reconstructions render the novel’s events dreamlike. The bashing of Benny is given a
particularly nightmarish quality by the fact that Jack experiences it through a drunken haze. More
generally, the novel’s repeated use of Buddhist and Aboriginal spirituality questions any straightforward

understanding of the physical world, suggesting that it only points to a greater reality available through
          These uses of dreams relate to the novel’s antipolitics in two ways. First, the dreamlike or
nightmarish experiences of the characters removes any sense of their agency. As in dreams, they seem
powerless to act, politically or otherwise, even when they are being harmed. Second, the emphasis on
dreams suggests an alternative world in which differences between people can simply be dreamed away.
In this way, for example, Jack (mis)appropriates Aboriginal Dreaming, equating his fixation with Bridget
to traditional initiation experiences. ‘She’s my Dreaming’, he tells Dave, who rather incredibly accepts
this claim (186). That dreaming can play such a role in connecting disparate people removes the need for
more difficult political solutions.

Protests in Shallows

         Shallows deals with two sets of activities that are unambiguously political protests. The first are
actions staged in 1978 by the newly formed international environmental group Cachalot and Company
against whaling by the Paris Bay Whaling Company at Angelus, on the southern coast of Western
Australia (31, 34-5, 40, 130-3, 168-71, 183-4, 187-9, 195-9, 207-9, 219-24, 229-30). The second are the
protests of unemployed workers and dispossessed farmers organised in 1932 by Daniel Coupar against
Benjamin Pustling, owner of most of the local economy (47, 52-3, 77, 84). A third set of activities in the
novel, Reverend William Pell’s resistance against Des Pustling’s bid for further control of Angelus, might
also be seen as political protest (79, 104-7, 123, 179, 225-8). For reasons of space, they will not be
discussed here.
         Cachalot’s protests are central to the action of the novel. The first Cachalot action on the
flensing deck of the whaling works draws Queenie Coupar (Daniel’s grand-daughter) into the anti-whaling
protests, dividing her from her husband Cleve Cookson and setting the other townsfolk against the
protesters (34-5, 46, 56-7). The final protest action, in which Queenie and other Cachalot protesters in
Zodiacs are diverted to rescue the drowning shark hunter Ted Baer, effectively closes the action of the
novel (229-30). The group’s widely publicised embarrassment at rescuing a wildlife killer apparently
forces them to move on (231, 237). Queenie returns to Cleve (235-6). Town life returns to normal

Protest participants in Shallows

          Winton describes three sets of anti-whaling protesters in Shallows. The first is the foreign
leadership of Cachalot. Fleurier, a French citizen, presents his commitment to saving whales as a direct
response to, and rejection of, his dead father’s life and values. His father was a diver hoped ‘to find some
answers about Man’ by searching for lost civilisations (43). Fleurier calls his father a ‘fool’. Hiroshima
and the Holocaust tell us all we need to know about humans. The way forward from these atrocities is
inter-species understanding and communication with animals like whales (43).
          If Fleurier’s beliefs seem genuine, putting them into practice is much harder. He is an
autodidact, who accumulates files on cetacean life that he does not understand (44-5, 189). Fleurier’s
also lacks organisational skills. Virtually all of the protests he organises break down at some point due to
problems that could have been anticipated. Farcical difficulties with the inflatable Zodiacs used in the
protests are a recurring symbol of his incompetence (113, 169-70, 188-9, 195, 223, 231).
          Marks has quite a different emotional and intellectual commitment to the protests. Whales are
not just an idea to him, as they are to Fleurier. He has spent a lot of time observing them in their habitat,
a fact attested to by his ‘face like a wallet’ (40-1). He is contemptuous of theorists who do little to save
whales (137-8). His is a practical commitment to whales based on their very existence (138). He also
reveals himself to be the most practical of the Cachalot protesters (169, 223). Winton presents the down
to earth Marks most sympathetically of the three Cachalot leaders.
          Cachalot’s media organiser, on the other hand, is largely a caricatured figure. Although Brent
clearly undertakes dangerous and difficult activities in the protests, filming the whalers from a Zodiac, he
is generally depicted as arrogant, insincere and incoherent (134). As a Canadian who has no direct
knowledge of whales prior to the Angelus protests, he is doubly an outsider.
          Apart from Queenie, the Australian Cachalot protesters are not described as individuals. While
Winton depicts the protesters as having a certain dignity and commitment in this first protest (34-5), in

Shallow’s later passages these qualities are absent. The protesters seem happiest in their plush Perth
hotel, partying, primal screaming and reading the eastern state newspapers while waiting for the Zodiacs
          Apparently none of them can contribute much to the protests once the Zodiacs arrive. Instead,
they argue among themselves over the politics of the movement (220). As the protests attract more
people, divisions in the protest movement multiply. Angelus becomes a carnival that, rather than
subverting the town’s order, temporarily reinvigorates its commercial and civic life (213-5).
          The one Australian protester whose motivations are explored in detail and with sympathy is
Queenie. Brian Matthews (1986, 84) has identified the parallels between her husband Cleve’s quest and
those of other young male characters in Winton’s novels.2 Queenie also undertakes a quest in Shallows,
one which covers greater geographical, political and cultural ground and more emotional and physical
challenges than Cleve’s.
          Queenie does not suddenly wake up to the wrongs of whaling when she encounters the protesters.
Since her childhood, she has had a visceral distaste for the slaughter of whales (33). She and Cleve have
argued with each other about the killings (19-20, 33). Although she is an insider to Angelus, part of the
Coupar family, as a child she was ‘always a curiosity’, an ‘eccentric’ marked as different from other town
children by her dreams and stories of whales (7, 141-2).
          Queenie’s commitment to the protests rests on their capacity to satisfy her desire for effective
action. Defending herself to Cleve after the initial protest, she argues ‘... I’ve done something useful for
the first time in my life’ (56). Protest is important because other political actions, such as contacting
members of parliament, are ineffective (57). Action, and particularly direct intervention to save whales,
is the sole basis of her commitment to the protests.
          Queenie’s anchoring in Angelus and her desire for action are the two competing forces that
determine her commitment. When the possibility of effective action fades, her awareness of her ties to
Angelus grows (134). While she is involved in the protest actions, she can hold off her desire to
reconnect with her community (186, 207-8). With the final collapse of the protests, she returns to her
home rather than striking out somewhere else (236).

Protest as ineffective: Antipolitics in Shallows

Winton’s depiction of political protest is largely negative. The other protest in the novel is also
unsuccessful. The first brief reference to the 1932 protests led by Daniel Coupar establishes its defeat:
‘When [Pell] returned he found his mother buried and young Daniel Coupar beaten: the Pustlings
controlled the town’ (47). Each successive reference to the protest elaborates the same story of a ‘heroic
and dramatic’ defeat (84, see also 52-3, 77, 85-6).
         Similarly, no whales are saved during the Cachalot protests. This ineffectiveness infuriates
Queenie (186). Brent sets a different standard for success: ‘We’re amassing our own partisans in the
press and TV, don’t worry. The visuals are the most important. Saturation. Awareness’ (186, 222).
Even measured against this alternative standard of media and public opinion, the protests ultimately fail
(113, 130-3, 168-71, 183, 191-3, 201, 222). After Queenie rescues Baer, journalists cannot see beyond
the headline paradox ‘Anti-Whalers Save Shark Killer’ to maintain any focus on the issues surrounding
whaling at Angelus. Further protest seems futile (237).
         The loss of the media battle is significant. In several key passages Winton’s novel closely
follows the events of actual protests in 1977 by Greenpeace activists against the last land-based whaling
station at Cheynes Beach near Albany in Western Australia (Turner 1993, 80). Like their Cachalot
counterparts, the Greenpeace activists left Cheynes Beach ‘depressed, let down and exhausted’; however,
they later felt vindicated by an anti-whaling shift in media and public opinion and a federal government
inquiry into the issue (Robert Hunter, in Turner 1993, 80). By denying Cachalot the wider public opinion
and public policy victories won by Greenpeace, Shallows underscores the futility of protest.3
         Shallows is clearly marked by one of the major forms of antipolitical thought identified by
Schedler (1997), in which necessity undercuts the idea of alternative outcomes implicit in political action.

  To which could be added male quests in the later Cloudstreet (1991) and The Riders (1994).
  Interestingly, while Turner (1993) draws comparisons between the actions of Cachalot at Angelus and
Greenpeace at Albany, he does not identify this important difference between them.

In Shallows, the forces of necessity are squarely those of tradition and religion: ’the irresistible force of
nature, God’s authoritative arbitrariness and the immutable rules of tradition’ (Schedler 1997, 7).
         Forces beyond human control are found throughout the novel--in drought, the land, the sea, and
especially in the whales that Cachalot is trying to save. Winton’s depiction of whales as subject only to
their own unknowable impulses adds to the idea that protest on their behalf is inconsequential.
         Despite the hopes of Georges Fleurier, Cachalot’s leader, that whales and humans will one day
share important knowledge (43, 141), Shallows suggests that such communication and understanding are
remote possibilities. Queenie’s vision of whales as divine agents, her ancestor Nathaniel Coupar’s
experience of them as demonic monsters and the biological learning of Cachalot’s expert Marks all leave
whales as mysterious forces beyond human knowledge.
         Incomprehension contributes to the uncertain results of human intervention in the lives of whales.
Queenie experiences this when she is in a Zodiac attempting to shield a sperm whale from the whalers:
‘Swim, she thought, swim whales! Dive! Go, fuck you!’ (222). The whale meanders, is harpooned and
         The ending of Shallows suggests that humans and whales may be linked only by the possibility of
a non-rational and pre-political surrender to life’s rhythms. In a series of short passages, Winton
describes the long southern migration of whales, including pregnant females, as an instinctive need (240,
246-7, 257, 259). Cleve and Queenie, who is also pregnant, gradually rekindle their love as they follow a
pod from one beach-side camping place to the next (250-2, 257, 259). In the novel’s final sentences, the
whales beach themselves in a storm:
         Masses of flesh and barnacles covered the sand, creeping up, floundering, suffocating
         under their own weight. A pink vapour from spiracles descended upon Cleve and Queenie
         Cookson as they moved between the heaving monuments (260).
Although this ending is ‘ambiguous’ (Turner 1993, 85), it appears that Queenie and Cleve are brought
together by putting politics behind them and experiencing the mysterious grandeur of nature (Matthews
1986, 87). Winton dismisses the contingent possibilities of political protest in favour of surrender to the
fixed patterns of natural forces.

Techniques in Shallows

Winton deploys a number of literary techniques in Shallows related to his antipolitical themes. The most
important include the satirising of the protests and protesters (see, for example, 132-133); the use of
Biblical language and references; the use of a godlike point of view; and the use of history.
         Shallows is replete with Biblical language and themes (see Turner 1993). Many of them relate
to the Old Testament prophetic tradition. The figure of Daniel Coupar combines elements of Jonah,
Ezekiel and Jeremiah, among other prophets. Like these prophets, his message is given by God, rather
than arising from his own volition. Its reception by the people is also out of his control. Prophetic
utterances thus understood allow little room for freely chosen action.
         Pat Burgess (1985, 37) has described Winton’s writing in Shallows as ‘... godlike, taking in all
the detail below’ before allowing readers to see the emotions of his characters: ‘Only when the scene is set
... do we get a glimpse inside. The emotion flows inevitably from the external description’. This
technique again emphasises necessity over contingency. Characters like Daniel Coupar, Pell and Queenie
are largely determined by their environments. They are unable to re-invent themselves in order to free
themselves from their environments, even when their actions become self-destructive.
         Winton’s use of history in Shallows--particularly the inclusion of large passages from Nathaniel
Coupar’s nineteenth century journal--is another important technique (see Edelson 1989; Murphy 1993;
and Ben-Messahel 1998). The journal functions, among other things, to point to apparently inescapable
repetitions of public and private history in Angelus. It thus represents a kind of negative foundation myth
that helps explain the later failings of Angelus and its people.


The suggestion in the three novels discussed above is that the forces behind participation in political
protest are far more complex and fluid than the social science literature based on questionnaire surveys,
could hope to uncover. Protest is integral to some people’s identity. For others, participation is less

deliberate than accidental. Protest is given a range of meanings by its participants, who understand it
through a variety of ideologies, traditions and identifications.
         The novels all depict forms of antipolitics. In The Reading Group, this antipolitics centres on
the impossibility of effective collective action, with the corollary that individuals should find their own
private utopias. Shallows returns to an older form of antipolitics, suggesting alignment with natural
forces and rhythms rather than exploration of the contingent possibilities of political action. Wintering
straddles the forms of antipolitics found in the other two novels, suggesting the primacy of self-regulation
over public action and the futility of political protest against both traditional and modern forces of


Bean, C. 1991 Gender and Political Participation in Australia Australian Journal of Social Issues 26(4)
         November: 276-93
Ben-Messahel, S. 1998 The Boomerang Effect of Time and History in Tim Winton’s Fictionalised
         Australia. Commonwealth Essays and Studies 21(1): 63-71
Burgess, P. 1985 How God Views Conflict in a Whaling Town. Sydney Morning Herald 26 January: 37
Edelson, P. 1989 The Role of History in Three Contemporary Novels. Journal of Popular Culture 23(2):
Epstein, B. 1991 Political Protest and Cultural Revolution Berkeley: University of California Press
Gelder, K. and Salzman, P. 1989 The New Diversity Melbourne: McPhee Gribble
Kelleher, V. 1990 Wintering St Lucia: University of Queensland Press
Knight, S. 1989 A Writable Future. Scripsi 5(2) 1989: 203-7
Lohrey, A. 1988 The Reading Group Sydney: Pan
----- 1990 The Reading Group. In Writers in Action: The Writer’s Choice Evenings Ed. G. Turcotte.
         Sydney: Currency Press
Matthews, B. 1987 Burning Bright: Impressions of Tim Winton. Meanjin 45(1): 83-93
Murphy, F. 1993 That Eye, The Past: History and Tim Winton’s Fiction. In Reading Tim Winton Eds R.
         Rossiter and L. Jacobs. Sydney: Angus and Robertson
Peek, A. 1992 Continuities of Conviction. Australian Book Review 145 October: 4-6
Riemer, A. 1988 Our Brave New World is Bleak. Sydney Morning Herald 18 June: 77
Schedler, A. 1997 Introduction: Antipolitics--Closing and Colonising the Public Sphere. In The End of
         Politics? Explorations into Modern Antipolitics Ed. A. Schedler London: Macmillan
Stenner-Day, K. and Fischle, M. 1992 The Effects of Political Participation on Political Efficacy: A
         Simultaneous Equations Model. Australian Journal of Political Science 27(2) July: 282-305
Turner, J. 1993 Tim Winton’s Shallows and the End of Whaling in Australia. Westerly 38(1) Autumn:
Whitebrook, M. 1995 Politics and Literature? Politics 15(1) February: 55-62
Winton, T. 1991 Cloudstreet Ringwood: Penguin
----- 1994 The Riders Sydney: Macmillan
----- 1998 [1984] Shallows Ringwood: Penguin


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