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contents

  
indecent assault on boys, Chatswood, Aug 28, 1952 indecent assault on boys, Chatswood, Aug 28, 1952
courtesy Justice and Police Museum Collection
WE’RE IN SYDNEY. IT’S JANUARY, 1946. THE WAR HAS JUST ENDED. THE TROOPS ARE RETURNING HOME. SHELLSHOCKED. STEPPING OFF A BOAT TO A CITY THAT HAS CHANGED IN THEIR ABSENCE. THE INFLUENCE OF AMERICAN SOLDIERS. THE BEATS OF JAZZ. THE WOMEN MORE STREETWISE. AN UNDERGROUND SOCIETY LIVES UNDER OUR FEET. CHILDREN WHO HAVE BEEN ABANDONED, SLEEPING IN SEWERS AND DRAINS.

And on the fringes, where the city meets the bush, there are places forbidden. Where women are exploited. Making films for soldiers to leer at. We’re drawn to Chinatown. The rooms above the shops. There’s the smell of blood. Closet abortions. The allure of smoke. Men with potions. A place to drift. We join a civilian chaplain who’s on the beat with detectives. Down at Central Street Police Station. He records the daily grind. The small confessions. The advice of cops. The places where crime happens. Murders, beatings, opium, prostitution, porn.

These are the dark spaces inhabited by Ross Gibson’s latest work of fiction, The Summer Exercises—part of UWA Press’s New Writing Series, which encourages innovative texts by emerging and established Australian writers (including Josephine Wilson, Emily Ballou, Fiona MacGregor [RT88, p40] and Sue Woolfe). Gibson comes from a background as a curator and producer of film and interactive media, and along with being former creative director of ACMI, he has also created installations (in collaboration with Kate Richards) for a series of exhibitions based on the collection at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney: the major immersive audiovisual installation Bystander in 2008-09; and the installations Darkness Loiters in 2001 and Crime Scene in 1999-2000.

The Summer Exercises surfaced from Gibson’s research at the museum and its style is alive and manic in a meld of Peter Corris-pace and place, and the hardboiled terseness of Raymond Chandler—so hot the pages feel they are burning in your hands. Here there’s no nostalgic reminiscence about a bygone era; this is a dark and dirty Sydney, somewhere to try to escape from, not to return to. A stinking city of stifling heat, the kind of place where:

a competition has brewed up among the beat constables: tally every type of rain that can fall on this town.

Rain that is:
cutting
sandy
the size of a coin
smelling of sleep.

And along with a city gone to ruin, there’s an assault on the landscape of the body: the shot memories of a detective cowed and beaten, rediscovering his senses (“Imagine there’s some bladder in the brain and it’s squirting his past life back to him”) and putting himself under interrogation (“What does your flesh have stored up for you?”); the lament of a detective close to retiring (“Pain is rusted on to his lower back. Corrosion has both his knees now”); the intimate meanderings of our chaplain as he watches women dance, on film in tents, tries to resist, subjugated to their peachy flesh:

On the rump of a woman in the burlesque club tonight:

The faint outline of a man’s thumb

+
an intimate welt given by a flicked strap

+
high up where the thigh hinges—some pale skin that promises the taste of pear or vanilla

The only hiccup to the intensity and sophistication of the writing is the fictionalised Publisher’s Notes that interrupt the chaplain’s observations. These notes reflect meanings back to us before we’ve had a chance to discover, like a full stop to our imagination; it’s as if the writer is scared the reader will get lost in the seeking. But the searching is what keeps us enthralled.

death by accident, Carncleuth St, Kings Cross, Feb 9, 1954 death by accident, Carncleuth St, Kings Cross, Feb 9, 1954
courtesy Justice and Police Museum Collection
After spending five years poring over thousands of negatives in the loft of the Justice and Police Museum, Gibson has selected 230 black-and-white photos of true-crime scenes to accompany his text, and it’s the nature of the real-life images and their delicate placement within the fictional text that packs a punch. We devour each image looking for clues. We map out the Sydney we know and try to find it located in these scenes. Is that Broadway? That building near Railway Square? We wonder at that mugshot: Is that our character who makes the pornos? We try to piece the images together with the text as we read. We wonder at the emptiness within the frames. Why the open window? The eagle-eye view down onto the street? Why is that picture on this page? Where is that lonely stretch of water? We bring the images up as close as they can go to examine the minutiae. Is that a body we can see smeared under the wheels of that truck? Are they doctors’ instruments? The images start to repeat—do they have added significance now?—so we return to earlier parts of the text. The images tease and encourage us. They make us conscious of our need for narrative coherence, to sort, to tie up those loose ends. We glance off them. We try for a deeper reading. These are images to pore over for hours. They demand our attention. We begin to create stories of our own, to see where they lead.

And by the end of the book, the nature of the images is revealed in the List of Illustrations (don’t search them out at the beginning). These are photographs of crime scenes (or places of suspicious activity) where the violence is generally absent: “Man killed by fall, Room 202, Hotel Metropole, Sydney City, 19 March 1954”; “Drowning of family, Sugar Loaf Bay, Middle Harbour, 28 May 1959.” But the sadness, the melancholy, the fear—these emotions linger in the images themselves, traces of disturbia that inform the book’s mood and create a resonance that stays with us, like “an impossible pebble afloat in bubbling water. Disobedient to gravity. Opiate pebble. Blue smoke going in, grey smoke going out.”


Ross Gibson, The Summer Exercises, UWA Press and Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 2008, UWA Press New Writing Series, www.uwapress.uwa.edu.au/fiction

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 55

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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