7 August 2014

Book Review: My Brother Jack

My Brother Jack by George Johnston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Suburbia’s most culpable quality, to many Australian writers, is its antagonism to art and to artistic production,” writes Robin Gerster. I would tend to agree. Suburbia is no friend to the writer, not only in the supposed lack of inspiration it provides, but also in its disapproval of the profession, of the act of being a writer/intellectual/academic.

This remark calls to mind the episode in My Brother Jack, where David first brings home the typewriter: “I told you the sly young devil was scribbling all that muck in his room…” says David’s father, as he berates his wife for bringing such failings to the family. The bohemian life of a writer David craves is lost to the minds of suburbia. David’s father is never entirely accepting of his son’s profession, even when he is making a respectable living as a journalist. The money he brings to the family is the peacemaker that allows David to return to the family home after his exile. “Suburbia is intrinsically anti-nature and, by extension, anti-Art” says Gerster. Australia has long been seen as rejecting the more cultural aspirations of Europe. All those serious about pursuing them must ultimately leave, as David Meredith does.

This semi-autobiographical book perfectly captures the dullness, frustration and restriction felt by those trapped in suburban lives. David’s dissatisfaction with suburbia has its roots in youthful boredom; he is tired of the “button-down world” he exists in, which is devoid of inspiration and stimulation for his mind, and that places a variety of repressions on his possibilities for expansion beyond the scope of suburbia. Intellectuals and creatives have held suburbia in contempt as, just as their pursuits are disregarded by suburbia, they see suburbia “as a place fit solely for satire” if it is worth anything at all. Suburbia must be cast aside if intellectual or creative pursuits are to be undertaken.

This book is enjoyable and enlightening read (despite the negativity there are some moments of absolute hilarity - the gum tree incident for example) that perfectly captures a particular time and mood in Australia. Its also an interesting historical perspective on WW2 - the ANZAC heroics and nostalgia are gone. Despite its age, this novel still feels fresh and it is easy to identify with the sometimes polarising character of David if you have experienced a similar situation.

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