9 AUGUST 1975, Page 20



Peter Ackroyd

But the Dead are Many Frank Hardy (Bodley Head £3.75) You Can't Get There From Here Walter Hegarty (Davis Poynter £3.00) Here is a creature which had long been thought extinct, but which has now been discovered in Australia: the solemn novel of the brow-beating species. The trunk of But the Dead are Many is perfectly preserved, but the heart must have stopped pounding at some point between 1943 and 1951. It was at that time that its theme began to yellow and curl up with age: John Morel, a member of the Australian Communist Party who has never forgotten his first hunger strike, has killed himself and his best friend, Jack, goes in search of the meaning of it all or, as someone deftly puts it, "there are mysteries of the mind of which we know little."

Most of the narrative creaks from one gear to another, using some parallels with musical composition with all the grace and comprehension of a native poking an amber necklace, with a series of clumsy monologues, narrative interventions and unwieldy 'flash-backs'. John Morel can suddenly remember vast stretches of his past in bars, on trains, in trucks and in hotel-rooms. He doesn't actually kill himself until page 250. With all of these mind-blowing mysteries to comprehend, is not surprising that Jack takes five years to fully appreciate his friend's suicide. And he, too, voyages onward to the great infinite on page 291. The characters behave as if they were on a mural above Leningrad railway station. These heroes, giants of Australian Marxism, all-toosolid, turn on each other with the creaks and groans of mighty engines as they discuss the great "moral issues"; their thoughts revolve like suns — "I must die that I may transcend myself. But how? By transforming myself in the memory of the living?" Metaphors, images and symbols circle around each other in a dizzying spiral of maudlin and self-conscious prose: "Desperately eager to drown in passion the tape-worm of 'self-disgust which was eating at his soul . . .".

Only grotesque and grandiloquent dialogue could aspire to this mood, and what we may here laughingly call the `characters' take it in turns to discuss the quiddifies of socialist ethics, the nature of the Australian Communist Party, the role of guilt and the saving powers of retribution. There is no, what shall I call it, sparkle ... "I followed him to the bar aware of the deep psychological need to pose the moral issues he could respond to." Good on you, cobber. And the moral issues lead to some very amateur theatricals: "Walter Dreyfus went to the piano again and played the first bars of Beethoven's Ninth, then swivelled on the piano stool to face me." Eyes are haunted, faces are mere masks, smiles are casual, Jesuit priests are kindly but shrewd, and windscreen wipers hiss like cornered snakes. This is the world of Frank Hardy and, if you want to find out all about the Australian Communist Party, I recommend him to you.

Mr Hegarty has chosen a theme which is no less pious, but which may nowadays be just

that extra bit conventional. You Can't Get

There From Here is the story of how a nice young girl grows up to be a wreck and a schizophrenic. This is the seventh novel, this year alone, in which the central character is a woman who has broken down, is about to break down, or is breaking down at this very minute. I have read fourteen novels this year which have heavily featured mental hospitals, or 'therapy session', or the couches of assorted psychoanalysts. In every one of these novels, matters have gone from bad to worse — a cliche which has now superseded the regular 'happy ending' as the novelists' favourite.

Why has it become so necessary for novelists of the middle rank to choose the troubled, the deranged or the simply incompetent as their heroes? It may be that they are more important or 'relevant' than ordinary human beings, but this would be sentimental nonsense; it may be that they are somehow representative of our poor human condition, but this would be banal; it must be that misfits are much easier to create and to describe than gifted, successful or interesting human beings. Their surroundings, for one thing, are generally much simpler. And the dialogue is a cinch. ,

So it is that Mr Hegarty opens his novel in the hospital where Josie, his heroine, has been 'incarcerated. He lays her all out in the first chapters, when the obligatory social worker tells Josie's story and, predictably, gets it all wrong. Josie herself goes through it all again in that easy, colloquial manner which novelists use when they want us to feel at home and suffer along with the cast. And there is some suffering: Josie is molested by two boys, she get tuberculosis, she is rejected by her family, and eventually she has a nervous collapse and jumps out of a window. This happens so naturally that you might be forgiven for thinking it one of those inevitable leaps into maturity, and the problem with books of this sort is that they cannot expand beyond the little world which the novelist has created for himself.

Josie then goes into a hostel for deranged teenagers, where she improves briefly only to fall back again into schizophrenia and despair. There is no art or artifice involved in any of this and, as the blurb says, "Josie's case is almost a text-book example". She should have stayed in the text-books, because she won't do in a novel. Her experiences remain peripheral and exterior — are we meant to suffer terror, be sympathetic or feel superior? At best the book is a well-intentioned but deeply uninteresting study of a 'social problem', and at worst it is insufferably voyeuristic. There isn't any doubt that pain and isolation automatically evoke very powerful responses in those who read about them, but a novel should be more than an easy touch for conventional feelings. This one goes down all the predictable channels: "Lend her a womb to be born from — a different womb. If that poor girl is to go anywhere, she's got to start from somewhere else. She cannot start from here." And what comes out at the other end is unvarnished sentimentality and some meretricious sermonising.