When I wrote a post about the elevation of Colleen McCullough to ‘Australian Legend’ status by the discerning literary critics at Australia Post, I hadn’t read a word she’d written. Nor, at the time, did I intend to. But then, in a moment of weakness, I thought: well, how bad can it be, really?
As it turns out, it can be dreadful.
When reading The Thorn Birds I reflected that it would be possible to be understanding about any one of McCullough’s failings if it was the only failing. I could forgive her sloppy and decidedly purple prose if that was all that was wrong with Thorn Birds; likewise her sentimentality; her lack of historical or scientific nous would be as nothing had either been the sole issue; her weak characterisations and even her occasional descents into trite racism might also be overlooked if she had saved them up for a couple more books.
But when all of these weaknesses are to be found in the same work they’re very, very hard to forgive, and it’s frankly impossible to call The Thorn Birds anything other than a giant, overstuffed and overcooked turkey.
The Thorn Birds traces the experiences of the Clearly family between 1915 and 1969, but above all the novel is about the love affairs that play havoc with first Meggie, and then her daughter Justine. About a quarter of the novel is a rags to riches melodrama, and the remainder a plodding confirmation that indeed the course of true love is rarely smooth.
Sloppy purple prose is the first issue to contend with. Let’s take a look.
Here Meggie is about to spend a night of passion with the father of her second child, the man she has always loved: his Eminence the Cardinal Ralph de Bricassart (I know, I know: we’ll get to that). Being a tender and solicitous woman, she takes his boots off for him, whereupon ‘He put one foot on her backside while she pulled a boot off, then changed it for the bare foot.’
Now, be honest: do you have a clear picture of what has been described? Is Meggie facing Ralph on her hands and knees? If she is, how does he reach her arse with his foot? Does he possess unusually long legs? Does Meggie have a freakishly short torso? Or is she facing away from him, and does he therefore tuck one knee under his chin in order to pull off this contortion?
Or here’s Ralph when he was a simple parish priest:
‘Naked, Father Ralph stepped off the veranda to stand on the barbered lawn with his arms raised above his head, eyes closed; he let the rain pour over him in warm, probing, spearing runnels, an exquisite sensation on bare skin. It was very dark. But he was still flaccid.’
Poor guy – not even the rain and the dark can animate his organ.
True to her Mills and Boon heritage, McCullough makes us wait 200 pages for a sex scene – but what a scene! The rough, self-confident jack-of-all-farming-trades Luke O’Neill has been after Meggie for her money, and (please keep in mind that Luke is fully clothed here) in the back of a borrowed Rolls Royce…
‘He pushed his face lower in a blind, compulsive touch-search of one cold, cushioned surface, lips parted, pressing down, until they closed over taut ruched flesh. His tongue lingered for a dazed minute, then his hands clutched in agonized pleasure on her back and he sucked, nipped, kissed, sucked… The old eternal impulse, his particular preference, and it never failed. It was so good, good, good, goooooood! He did not cry out, only shuddered for a wrenching, drenching moment, and swallowed in the depths of his throat.’
Nothing like rhyming ‘wrenching’ and ‘drenching’ when you want to evoke someone spurting in their pants. And I swear I’m not exaggerating the final seven-o ‘go0oooood!’
McCullough’s deficiencies as a writer are most obvious when she tries to take on big ideas. After Luke and Meggie get married (poor innocent Meggie thought she’d lost her virginity in the Roller), we meet Luddie and Anne Mueller. Luddie is ‘far from academia’, but still ‘an ardent student of human nature; he read great fat tomes bound in Morocco leather with names on their spines like Freud and Jung, Huxley and Russell.’ Luddie, the intellectual, the devourer of dense psychoanalytical notions, discovers that Luke enjoys cutting sugar-cane. The man who has swallowed Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie, Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido and Principia Mathematica is not surprised:
‘Oh, yes. You’ve got the right sort of temperament and the right sort of body, I think. It makes you feel better than other men, superior to them.’
Move over Freud and Jung! There’s a psychological insight for you: tough men like to feel tough.
Germaine Greer quite rightly points out in her review of Thorn Birds that ‘McCullough is as uninterested in Australian ecosystems as most Australians’, and you don’t have to look far to see how completely out to lunch McCullough is on ecological issues. Mourning the introduction of rabbits to Australia, McCullough opines that
‘their sentimental importation had completely upset the ecological balance of the continent where sheep and cattle had not, these being scientifically grazed from the moment of their introduction.’
Of course the introduction of rabbits upset the ‘ecological balance’ – any fool can tell you that. But it takes a special type of fool to believe that sheep and cattle are ‘scientifically grazed’ even now, and the simple fact is that Australia’s topsoil isn’t robust enough to support sheep and cattle however ‘scientifically’ you farm them.
Greer was, I thought, unusually gentle with The Thorn Birds – but then you don’t get points for picking on people who are so obviously smaller than you. She might be going too far in accusing McCullough of something akin to ‘literary apartheid’ because there is only one sneering mention of Indigenous Australians in the entire novel, but it’s certainly the case that McCullough has little affection for anyone who isn’t white.
When World War Two breaks out, two of Meggie’s brothers go off to fight, first in North Africa (‘Fuckin’ Dago grenade, all splinters and no punch’) and then in Papua New Guinea, where they face ‘Pint-size yellow men who all seemed to wear glasses and have buck teeth.’ Nice. McCullough also thinks that, despite their ferocious determination and a string of impressive military achievements, the Japanese ‘had absolutely no martial panache.’
It’s hardly surprising that McCullough, having warmed up on the subject, regurgitates the shallow nonsense that Britain callously cut its colonies loose while draining them of manpower after Japan entered the war; many more intelligent writers have fallen into the same trap. But only McCullough could describe it like this: ‘it was a hard jolt for Australia, to discover that the Mother Country was booting all her Far Eastern chicks out of the nest, even a poult as fat and promising as Australia.’
But enough of the side issues: the pulsing – even throbbing – quick of the novel is the love affair that sounds like a bad joke: ‘Have you heard the one about the cardinal and the Irishman’s daughter?’
Of course (Mills and Boon again), the affair doesn’t come to any kind of penetrative fruition until Meggie has the wreckage of one marriage behind her. Meggie and Ralph first meet when Meggie is 10 and Ralph already a priest, but it’s love at first sight for both of them. Ralph can’t get enough of her ‘Titian’ hair, and Meggie goes for anyone in Holy Orders who doesn’t beat her. But it helps that Ralph is a stud-muffin. It’s Fate.
When the time has come for them finally to get it on (deserted holiday resort, Ralph pretending to be Mr O’Neill), McCullough rolls up her sleeves and really lets rip:
‘Time ceased to tick and began to flow, washed over him until it had no meaning, only a depth of dimension more real than real time. He could feel her yet he did not feel her, not as a separate entity; wanting to make her finally and forever a part of himself, a graft which was himself, not a symbiosis which acknowledged her as distinct. Never again would he not know the upthrusts of breasts and belly and buttocks, the folds and crevices in between. Truly she was made for him, for he had made her; for sixteen years he had shaped and moulded her without knowing that he did, let alone why he did. And he forgot that he had ever given her away, that another man had shown her the end of what he had begun for himself, what he had always intended for himself, for she was his downfall, his rose; his creation…’
And so on, and so on. Pausing only for the money shot (‘His mind reeled, slipped, became utterly dark and blindingly bright; for one moment he was within the sun, then the brilliance faded, grew grey, and went out’) McCullough gushes away with contradictions and tautologies jostling for space.
About now, you might think, would be a good place to wrap it all up – but there are still 200 weary pages to go.
A child, of course, is conceived in this ‘graft’ (a lifetime’s celibacy must have pushed Ralph’s sperm-count through the roof): Dane. He has an elder sister Justine, who is a legitimate product of Meggie and Luke’s marriage. Dane follows dad into the church (although he doesn’t know that Ralph is his father, and Ralph doesn’t know that Dane is his son) and Justine follows in mum’s footsteps by being hopeless at choosing the right man (‘Of chief interest to everyone called a friend was how, when and with whom Justine would finally decide to become a fulfilled woman…’).
At this point in the novel I had long stopped caring how it would end, and I don’t propose to inflict further details of the plot upon you.
I think the final key to McCullough’s bad writing is her attitude towards criticism. She once said that ‘an editor is the only critic who can ever matter to a writer, because the editor is your only critic who ever sees it in a form which can be amended.’
That almost sounds plausible, but really McCullough is wilfully misunderstanding the role of an editor, and the role of a critic. An editor is there to fix the mistakes that you make, and a critic is there to nail you for the mistakes you didn’t fix, or didn’t know you’d even made.
A writer who has no time at all critics is on dangerous ground, not because critics are necessarily right all the time, but because they might be. When Germaine Greer said that Thorn Birds was ‘the best bad book I had ever read’ she was in fact paying McCullough an importantly qualified compliment: a compliment that contains a warning and a great big hint.
McCullough has also said that she doesn’t ‘have any time for the literati’, and one is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s remark: ‘Never speak disrespectfully of society. Only people who can’t get into it do that.’