Research Notes · 08/22/2014

Blood and Bone

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Daniel Davis Wood writes about Blood and Bone from Seizure.

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“The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” Cormac McCarthy once said. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” But as well as appending those remarks to a list of his literary influences, McCarthy named the writers whose work he most dislikes (Marcel Proust, Henry James) and suggested that his own books are made not only out of others but against them as well. According to this view of things, literature is a form of protest against a sense of absence in the world. Since readers hardly need new work that merely echoes work already in existence, there must be, among the forces that compel a person to sit down and write a book, some lingering dissatisfaction with the books already written and some notion of a sort of book that has not been written before. Those forces are certainly what compelled me to write my novel Blood and Bone, a novel that contains traces of the books instrumental to its creation and that also, in a way, endeavors to unwrite them.

On one level, Blood and Bone is a work of what tends to be called historical fiction. Set in the mid- to late nineteenth century, as white frontiersmen advanced a campaign of extermination against the indigenous peoples of inland Australia, Blood and Bone revolves around Rowan Scrymgeour, a settler in far western Queensland, and tells the story of his obsessive, monomaniacal struggle to consolidate his claim on the almost lifeless patch of desert on which he built his homestead. The pages are shot through with the names of real historical figures and the dates of actual historical events, all part of an effort to vividly recreate Scrymgeour’s milieu with facts, facts, innumerable facts, drawn from books like Henry Reynolds’ The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002), and Jonathan Richards’ The Secret War (2008). Gordon Reed’s A Nest of Hornets (1982) was especially helpful in providing details on a landmark occurrence on the Australian frontier, the Hornet Bank Massacre of 1857, and the reprisals enacted by men like Rowan Scrymgeour in the decades that followed:

The dogs were the first to be put to death. The station servant, Baulie, called them together and bludgeoned each one with a short, sharp blow to the skull. He worked in darkness, far beyond earshot and out of view of the whites who had already slunk off to bed, and he worked in collaboration with the raiders who would slaughter the whites before sunrise. On October 25, 1857, half a dozen Jiman tribesmen swept through the Dawson River sheep station known as Hornet Bank. The men inside the cabin were killed where they slept or where they stood up to fight. The girls and women were ushered outside into the predawn dark. The eldest three women were raped by the Jiman, by men who had likely learned the trick from the settlers who first encountered the tribe, and then the white women and girls were put to death much like the dogs. When the sun emerged on the distant horizon, the men of the Jiman fled west with Baulie and left eleven bodies bleeding out behind them.

On another level, however, Blood and Bone is a self-conscious, self-reflexive record of literary failure, not only distinct from but categorically opposed to much historical fiction published today. Something unsettling happened to me as I labored away at telling Scrymgeour’s story. Time and again as I sat down to write, I found that the world Scrymgeour lived in and the experiences he endured were so utterly alien to me that his feelings and thoughts became almost entirely inaccessible. The same was true of the daughter with whom he shared his home and the indigenous people who suffered his violence and the allies with whom he conspired to claim indigenous lives. Humanism was what I wanted to bring to Scrymgeour’s story. Humanism would enable me to breathe life into the men and women involved in the harrowing events he incited, and to place the reader inside the heads of those who have been silenced by the historical record, and, above all, to countervail the academic inertia of Reynolds and Gibson and Richards and Reed, to offer my readers palpable experiences of what those historians report impersonally or abstractly — but the more I determined to humanize his story towards these ends, the more I felt the impossibility of the entire enterprise and the more I felt dismayed by the very thought of the books that carried it forward.

Two historical novels in particular suddenly struck me with nausea. Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) and David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon (1993) were works that I once admired but that I quickly felt moved to destroy. Both are beloved classics of Australian literature and both deal with events similar to those of Blood and Bone, but, in distilling those events into words, both of them project and assume a sense of authority over the historical events they depict, and this authority, as I now see it, is undeserved because unearned, the result of an act of bad faith — an effort to deny the haziness of history, to subject it to the stylized force of an authorial confidence, and to thereby aim to satisfy readers who hunger, like children, for the consolations of narrative causality, clarity, and certainty. The ease with which Keneally and Malouf appeared to make this effort, the pretense of the ease and the shamelessness of the pretense, the silence surrounding any misgivings about the mode in which they were writing and any difficulties in the process, the utter lack of scruples in seizing human beings who actually existed and effacing their complexities via the single-minded cataloguing of their deeds and their supposed thoughts, the campaign to reduce all depicted events to mere links in a chain of cause and effect in order to produce nothing more than a dramatization of how various people might have felt about a series of things that happened a long time ago — all of this I found repellant.

In search of a way out, an escape from the straight jacket of historical fiction in the mode of lyrical realism, I cast about for authors, especially Australian authors, who acknowledged rather than evaded the pitfalls in the act of writing and who sought for ways to write them into the work they produced. All I managed to find, however, were more novels to write against. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005) is much like Blood and Bone, written out of an author’s attempt to navigate an imaginative route into the mind of a colonial ancestor, but the research undergirding almost every sentence was stripped from the prose and cast into a strictly non-fiction companion volume, Searching for the Secret River (2006), so as not to overcomplicate the realism of the original fiction. Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party (2011), despite its McCarthyesque prose stylizations, tells the story of Tasmania’s Black War with as much faith in its clarity of the setting, its certainty of characterization, and its causal connections between narrative events, as the novels of Keneally, Malouf, Grenville, and others. Even Australian novelists who didn’t deal with specifically Australian themes followed the lead of writers like Keneally and Malouf. In Caleb’s Crossing (2011), for instance, Geraldine Brooks focuses on the first Native American man to attend Harvard University, while Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (2013) follows the last days of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, but both Brooks and Kent take great pains to efface every hint of themselves and their struggles from the pages they have written and, more than that, to conjure a stylistic sleight of hand to distract from the effacement itself.

My reading brought me to a point where I could no stomach this mode of writing fiction and so, of course, I felt I couldn’t allow it to filter into anything I hoped to write. I wanted to produce something more alive, more vitalized, than all the monographs I read on the Hornet Bank Massacre and the Queensland Native Police Force and colonial settlers akin to Rowan Scrymgeour, but what I also wanted, I realized, was to find a form in which I might be able to tell Scrymgeour’s story while also denying the criteria generally held to determine the success of historical fiction. I wanted a work whose success would not at all depend on the thoroughness of its imagining of the life of an historical figure. I wanted a work whose success would depend on its recurrent and relentless exposure of the inability of anyone to truly imagine such a life and convey it in words. The only two novels that came anywhere close to satisfying my want were Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (2008) and Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2010, translated by Sam Taylor in 2012). Yet while both of those novels interact speculatively with the historical record as their authors incorporate themselves and their processes into the work they produce, I found that even they did not go as far as I wanted to go in writing towards the practical and ethical dilemmas of historical speculation and, more importantly, of its articulation.

Blood and Bone is therefore not only a novel that has been made out of other novels, nor even strictly a novel made against other novels. In the most literal sense of the phrase, it is its own research: the writing of the book was my renewed attempt to search for what I had failed to find when I read the books I have named above. Still in the hope of humanizing the abstractions of academic historians, I gathered together the fragments of an incoherent historical record and I yoked them one to another with speculations and suppositions, but in the process I had no choice but to unsettle and undermine the strategies that historical novelists typically employ in order to allow readers to finish a book, close its covers, and release a sigh with the sense that they now understand what something that happened centuries ago felt like for someone else. The result, of course, could not be anything other than this: a novel cobbled together from all of the above sources as well as from the missteps of its own earliest incarnations, a novel that contains within itself the wreckage of the book it was becoming before it swerved to become the book it is today:

This is where I fear my grip on Rowan Scrymgeour falters. In earlier drafts of these pages I gave him a line of dialogue here, a question he asks of his daughter. In earlier drafts he squinted off into empty space and, more to himself than to her, he wondered aloud at what point she decided to declare herself his enemy. In earlier drafts I even delved into his thoughts as he scoured his memory to isolate the precise moment at which she had irrevocably alienated herself from him. But no such attempts at precision of thought have been woven into this version of his life because I have come to recognise the futility they entail. All I know for certain is that he pauses at the door to the forbidden room and then turns back to look at the girl. He says nothing to her and I cannot sense, I can only guess, the thoughts that might have welled up within him as he stood there watching her.

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Daniel Davis Wood teaches literature and history at the Ecole d’Humanité, Switzerland, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He was born in Sydney and studied in Boston and Edinburgh before completing a PhD in Literary Studies at the University of Melbourne. His website is DanielDavisWood.com and he’s on Twitter at @danieldaviswood.