BRENTLEY FRAZER Scoundrel Days: A memoir. Reviewed by Annette Hughes
Scoundrel Days takes the reader into each unfolding moment of Frazer’s getting of wisdom.
Brentley Frazer has changed names in this memoir to protect the privacy of particular individuals, but every word of it rings true. Children who grew up in far north Queensland will feel Frazer’s descriptions of the place on their skin. Teens who railed against the stultifying suburban hell of late 1970s Brisbane and came of age in share houses, surviving on shit jobs and the dole, will recall the taste of amphetamine and cheap booze and the smell of mouldy sheets on a stained mattress. The story at first glance resembles classic grunge, but proves much more interesting than that narrow pigeonhole suggests.
Readers will revel in this wonderful piece of writing for the way it engages all the senses with its poetic language, and writers will love it for its investigation of the nature of language itself, and how the poet compresses reality into words.
Scoundrel Days takes the reader into each unfolding moment of Frazer’s getting of wisdom, from birth through to sex, drugs and rock and roll, and finally to adulthood. Brentley, Frazer’s instantly engaging younger-self narrator, has a prodigious memory. He can recall an image of toys suspended above his cot, and his own circumcision as an infant. Impossible? Intense pain and trauma can send you out of your body, where you can feel yourself watching from somewhere outside yourself. When you experience such dissociation, triggered by the flow of endorphins, pain can become a refuge, an escape. It can make you feel –and make you fearless.
Already inured to pain and violence through living next door to the lock-up where his father works as the local cop, Brentley arrives at school and his world expands, as does his capacity for observation and recall. Brentley, the outsider – the weird kid with the big eyes – takes all the punches in the gut from the outset and consequently becomes wary, vigilant and extremely self-conscious. He watches himself act, and soon learns how to put on other personas and slip into characters from the books he reads.
Now father of his own children, Frazer offers a tender portrait of his younger self, and of his ‘old man’ and the difficult rift that comes between them over Brentley’s increasingly wild behaviour. A child can only wonder what its parents hope for, watching for clues as to how to behave, how to survive and thrive in their world, but if parental expectation doesn’t match up with the child’s innate sense of justice, rebellion rears up. Disillusioned with his parents and the foundational morality of their religious cult, Brentley kicks back and rejects the corruption he perceives in society by getting out of control. He becomes a problem. Precocious, brash, and certain of his own perceptions, he reads poetry and despises any attempt to socialise him into a system he has no intention of joining. But even after all the punishments, an unbreakable bond with his father endures. He calls his father ‘my old man’, not the old man, fully aware that his own emergent life is built on the reef of his father’s hopes and dreams.
Frazer pushes young Brentley’s face to the windscreen of his oncoming life, and the young scribe records his most immediate impressions in his journal – episode after manic episode. Scene after scene flashes past like the view from a fast moving car. Images gather then scatter like postcards across a table as he hurtles into his future, leaving the reader to sort through them for clues Though Brentley matures, the clarity of his narrative voice remains remarkably consistent, always from the point of view of his inner watcher, the ‘I’ we all possess that admonishes or reassures, the ‘other’ we call conscience.
Scoundrel Days examines the concepts of conscience and morality and how we form them. Do we acquire the inner voice? Or does it emerge from within, inherrent, like the colour of one’s eyes? This memoir throws up questions about the nature of conscience, which propels much of young Brentley’s character development. How does the young teen find the fortitude to reject his family’s religious beliefs? How does he decide to act and expose a predatory preacher at such a tender age, when no one else will? How can he be so attached to a violent punk like Reuben, whom he loves like a brother? How could he have sex with his girlfriend’s sisters, able to blithely ‘slaunt’ from one risky sexual encounter to the next, then somehow develop into an adult capable of deep empathy? His actions may appear thoughtless but at that moment of priapic transgression, Brentley can think of nothing else, and action follows thought:
The extent to which conscience informs moral judgment before an action and whether such moral judgements are or should be based in reason has occasioned debate through much of the history of Western philosophy.*
Brentley rejects the religious view of conscience when he discovers evidence that the ‘pedo’ tramp pastors of his parents’ cult have inverted the Christian concept of morality as divine and inherent in all humans. Frazer puts the eye of god back where it belongs – inside the human skull, where experience processes into memory through conscious intelligence. The nascent poet looks his would-be assailants straight in the eye, bearing witness to their hypocrisy, while they feel the ire of an angry god accusing them of their sin. Having achieved escape velocity, Brentley runs flat-out into his future without a backward glance, which he knows from his reading could turn you to stone or worse, condemn you to the underworld. The archetypal fool gets the hell out of there, armed with only heart and soul and a newly acquired moral compass pointing in all directions away from the teachings of the cult. Sex and drugs and rock and roll beckon and he embarks at full tilt on a quixotic quest for his artistic holy grail: to become a poet.
From the relatively dreamlike juxtapositions of childhood experiences, Brentley’s adolescence transforms into a state of hyper-alertness, with no time to pause for reflection. He refuses to acknowledge morality so readers can only assess his behaviour against their own moral compass. This cracking narrative pace creates a constant state of unfolding suspense. Apart from the few flashes of self-knowledge that come to Brentley about his own behaviour, and a couple of comments he makes regarding the way others treat their parents or partners and friends, Frazer leaves any judgement up to the reader as his concupiscent narrator engages in the ever-present act of forming meaning from the chaos of interactions that confront him. Both reader and writer look out from inside Scoundrel Days, from inside the consciousness of the unreflective narrator.
Scoundrel Days is the subject of Frazer’s PhD thesis, which should become the gold-standard how-to manual on writing clear, utterly active prose. He made several attempts and discarded many drafts to create this literary memoir. The sheer inventiveness of description arrived at through the sharp focus on reality leaves no room for clichés. His beautifully modulated rhythms make the book a joy to read, but the technical accomplishment of the work goes way beyond pace and precision.
About early drafts of Scoundrel Days, Fraser says:
I set out to write a memoir in first person present perfect, just to see what would happen when writing a personal history without the reflective voice. Right away I found myself perplexed by tensions that arise between mimetic and diegetic methods of storytelling. Aiming to write directly represented action (mimesis), where my protagonist exists in the eternal now or continuous present, where he lives rather than remembers (shows rather than tells) a personal history proved very difficult. The static hum of reflection drowned the dynamic action I desired to capture. Looking back to childhood, not tainting these reflections with adult sensibilities… not reflecting!*
Frazer achieves this desired effect using E-Prime, a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb ‘to be’, including all conjugations, contractions and archaic forms, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact. According to Frazer:
Writing in E-Prime requires the author to expose the agent of a sentence and therefore lends itself favourably to other techniques of mimetic storytelling … [it] enhances vernacular authenticity, improves clarity, readability and the quality of immersion in a text. The E-Prime constraint offers access to dynamics of language ordinarily subliminal.*
The verb ‘to be’ dissembles. To say a thing ‘is’ deceives by concealing reality in a shroud of static time when in fact time cannot be halted. To test this out, I decided to cast this review in E-Prime, and very soon experienced exactly the same problems Frazer describes in the same article. I’d get halfway down a sentence and come to the dreaded ‘is’ – not easy to fix, because I needed to completely restructure the sentence and really think hard about the active subject, reshuffle clauses and make multiple attempts before it clicked in to place. However, once the penny drops, once you feel the effect of E-Prime through practice, it changes your whole world view. The mind adapts very quickly to the imposition of the constraint and suddenly I find myself not only writing but reading in a new thoroughly conscious way. Everything becomes literally more clear, more true.
Scoundrel Days contains enough meat for half a dozen creative writing theses , but violence emerges as the major theme. Frazer came of age amid deep systemic violence and lived to tell the tale. Brentley’s memory of his own circumcision, that first abuse against his person, conditions him for the later abuse of his soul – his and the children of his cohort – abused physically and emotionally by hapless parents and schooled by a violent state and later, enslaved by violent passions and drug abuse. Scoundrel Days speaks on behalf of the mute underclass; firstly children and the poor, bastardised by the brutality of a system that regards them as things. It also points to the larger brutality perpetrated by the state against the very words we use to speak truth to both each other and to power. John Pilger sees our polity as desperately short of writers prepared to look at what society actually does to people in a modern publishing industry that feeds narcissism, infantilises and maintains the social status quo:
No Shelley speaks for the poor, no Blake for utopian dreams, no Byron damns the corruption of the ruling class, no Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin reveal the moral disaster of capitalism. William Morris, Oscar Wilde, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw have no equivalents today. Harold Pinter was the last to raise his voice.
He should read more Australian literature. We do have those voices, writers who engage with reality, who articulate their particular perception of it with clarity and precision, and when they do emerge, we immediately recognise them: writers like Christos Tsiolkas, Charlotte Wood, Christopher Barnett, Brett D’Arcy, Elizabeth Harrower, Ruth Park, Christina Stead — and now, Brentley Frazer joins them.
Brentley Frazer Scoundrel Days: A memoir UQP 2017 PB 312pp $29.95
02 March 2017 http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/2017/03/02/brentley-frazer-scoundrel-days-memoir-reviewed-annette-hughes/