J S Harry’s ‘tunnel vision’, Vicious Sydney and The Car Story

1 March 2017

The Car Story

A strange thing happened in Australian writing in the early 1970s. In Australian film also. People turning into cars.

Peter Carey’s famous ‘Crabs’ story, for example (from The Fat Man in History, 1974, but the story first appeared in Overland in 1972, and appears to have been written in 1970), in which the eponymous protagonist borrows a friend’s car to take his girlfriend to the drive-in only to find, when he comes back from the canteen at interval, that a part of the car has been stolen by the infamous Carboys and that he cannot drive home again. Days go by, weeks; more parts get stolen; they are forced to live at the drive-in. Eventually Crabs realises that the only way he is going to be able to escape the drive-in is to turn himself into a car, which he does, and slowly, carefully drives out of there, only to find that the rest of the world seems to have disappeared and there is only road, and emptiness, until some welcoming lights are seen, which he drives toward only to find that they are (you guessed it) those of the drive-in.

Or Robert Adamson’s poem ‘The Imitator’, from Canticles on the Skin (1970), in which, playing on the pun of speed, articulating his Rimbaudian intention (Je est un auto), driving and drug experiences, car and occupant merge:

Don’t freak now, come down slow with codeine phosphate; speed
as much as you like, just hang on to your impetus and never
use the break … Keep shooting and you’ll find
there’s no right-side of the double yellow lines – 
Make sure the windscreen’s always clean, don’t read traffic signs
unless you’ve passed them once before.

When the morphine goes to water, move on with heroin ...
Keep the brain afloat: shootup with quality. Stay clear of bikeboys,
hoods and Chinamen – use anything, stay numb as long
as you can: any pain now could be deadly
they’ll sense it, knife in, and you’re gone –
Care for the Customline’s your habit1; and you’re on your own.

Or Jack Hibberd’s first play, White With Wire Wheels, (first performed 1967, published in Plays Jack Hibberd in 1970), in which, in a surrealistic close to the eighth scene, a group of automobile-obsessed young men form themselves into a car:

ROD: Just wait until I get my new Mustang. {Pause.} Can I stay the night with you?
HELEN: No.
ROD: I won’t do anything. I’d be happy just to sit in the corner and watch you sleep.
{Pause.}
HELEN: Goodnight.
ROD: Goodnight.
{Walking across the stage with the gear-stick and box}
My head is not exactly clear,
I don’t know what I’m doing,
My dreams are thick with fear,
I’m frightened
And unenlightened,
I think there’s something brewing.
{He exits. Darkness and music, preferably early ‘Beach Boys’. A tableau is suddenly revealed. It is composed of ROD, MAL and SIMON supporting the wheels, steering wheel, gear-stick, etc. in the form of a car, and huddling together as if in a car and driving at high speed.}2

Or Peter Weir’s 1974 film The Cars That Ate Paris, in which – the motif inverted (cars now taking on human characteristics) – the residents of a small country town in New South Wales, making their living by causing road accidents and plundering the cars, find their own cars turning against them.

Whether this car-trail is zeitgeist or mere coincidence the logic is clear enough: at a time in which the implications of the new image of the human being presented by Structuralism – he / she whose autonomy and independence have been eclipsed by discourse, whose presence is an illusion, whose ‘agency’ has become that of the ‘systems’ (of language, of economics, of biology, etc.) which pass through them – the ‘real’ and inner self we know or feel ourselves to be seems trapped within a frightening, impersonal frame for which the car seems a most pervasive and available metaphor: the vulnerable human body lost / trapped / imprisoned in the vehicle-of-systems it is now told it has always been.

The car-trail continues, permutes, develops its own resistances. As this crisis of subjectivity is further processed, we come, in the early nineties, to such images as that of the poet Bill McDonald in Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask (1994), crashed on a Blue Mountains road, his brakes sabotaged, screaming soundlessly at the window of the car in which he is being incinerated, or Sorrell Atherton’s dream and its later explanation, in John Scott’s What I Have Written (1993):

There is a car, a Renault 12, beside a kerb. The road is Blackburn Road … in Clayton, near where the drive-in used to be. It appears to be quite poorly parked: the front wheels pointed at, rather than beside, the kerb. The windows have misted in the cold, caused by the interior’s only trace of life: a raucous breathing. (143)

(I)t is my father’s face against the misted glass – I had expected it – the full expressions somehow unstitched, and pulled apart.

‘Go on!’ I hear him screaming through the glass. ‘Tell me that I’ll never come to anything. Tell me I am beyond love. Tell me that I’m self-absorbed’ (171-72)

The scream. The car window. Inverted in ‘Tunnel Vision’, yes – the girl outside, as if husked, stripped of her shell, the ‘motorists’ within their own, shielded space, rendered inhuman (or is it too human?) by the car window – but the elements, the mythemes, are there, and with them all of that wrenching circumambient discourse that has brought them into – holds them in – these configurations.

  1. A series of cars produced by the Ford company from 1952-1956.
  2. Four Australian Plays, with an Introduction by Graeme Blundell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973).
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