November 2010, 9781740669979 (Aus)
reviewed by Alice Robinson
John Tesarsch’s accomplished first novel The Philanthropist is a book about parents and children. It is about what we pass on, and what we inherit in turn. ‘The best thing a father can do, of course, is be there for his children. I wasn’t, because I was following false gods’ declares Charles Bradshaw, protagonist. He is speaking uninvited at the wedding of his mortified daughter, in the penultimate scenes of both the novel and his life. Here, Charles addresses the book’s underpinning theme, for The Philanthropist is also about money – the most imposing and controlling of the false gods Charles refers to. Money inherited and endowed, the novel tells us, corrupts, controls, defiles, destroys – for generations. What Charles receives from his father he gives in turn to his son, with ever more cancerous consequences; each generation in the Bradshaw family more reliant on – and more deformed by – what their money can buy. We are exposed to other examples of this genealogical decay, for almost all of Tesarsch’s finely drawn characters bare the scars of their parental relationships – or lack thereof. Perhaps this is the way of the world, as Philip Larkin would surely agree. In any case, The Philanthropist presents a deep and quietly sad exploration of the inevitably disastrous ways in which one’s parents might, without meaning to, ‘fuck you up’. It is a compelling read.
The Philanthropist is the most recent novel to come out of Sleepers, an independent publisher based in Melbourne. With Stephen Amsterdam’s widely acclaimed Things We Didn’t See Coming, and Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game to their credit, Sleepers must be doing something right. Whether publishing first novels – particularly those set in Australia – accords wholly with the publisher’s mission-statement or not, it remains that they are doing just that, with great success. Each of the aforementioned novels differs in regards to style and subject matter, but each shares one important element – beyond critical commendation – for each, arguably, presents a vision of contemporary life. While the novels of Ashton and Tesarsch unfold in the world as we know it, and are definitively and enjoyably Australian in setting, Amsterdam’s vision, partly post-apocalyptic, is set in an unnamed location.
Some might balk at my positioning of Things We Didn’t See Coming, alongside the other particularly Australian Sleepers texts. Yet to me, Amsterdam’s book is as locatable, literally, in relation to the Australian landscape as Tesarsch’s – locatable also classifiably, within a canon of apocalyptic writing about Australian lands – along with, for example, the novels of George Turner and Gabrielle Lord. In any case, regardless of setting, there is an even more crucial element that underpins the three works. For the narratives of Amsterdam, Ashton and Tesarsch play out against a common thematic backdrop – each one explicitly exploring a contemporary issue, one that manifests within and around the lives of the characters it brings to life. These issues, while various – environmental and societal decay, worker’s rights, isolation and drug use, and in the poignant case of The Philanthropist, the interlaced roles of money, family, and guilt – are what makes these novels great, even important. And to say that the issues are ‘explicit’ is not to say that these narratives are didactic, preachy or overly burdened with ‘a message’. Quite the opposite. Tesarsch’s rendering of his underpinning concerns within the story of the Bradshaw family, has been done delicately, even insidiously, so that the reader is conscious only of the narrative and character development while reading; wholly absorbed in the story itself. It is only afterwards, when the book is complete, that the clarity of the message – a bitter aftertaste – remains.
Each of these special first books is contributing to the ongoing discussion about what it means to live at this time – in Australia, and in the world at large. When, in The Philanthropist, we are taken to Charles’ beachfront mansion (all glass and contemporary art) we recognise ourselves, just as we recognise ourselves on his daughter’s self-sustaining ‘hippie’ property near Hepburn Springs. This is not to say that by recognising, we like what we see. Certainly the novels that Sleepers are publishing – no less Tesarsch’s than the others – present a pretty grim picture of life, particularly life in contemporary Australia. Yet it is heartening to find that so many first-time authors are writing about their own contexts – or, that Sleepers are seeking to publish the narratives of those that do, as it may be.
In an era bloodied by genre writing, where vampires appear to reign, it is also refreshing to see that literary works do remain viable, publishable and read. Like the novels of both Ashton and Amsterdam, The Philanthropist is multifaceted without being convoluted, its structure elegantly poetic, the language precise. It is a fine example of contemporary literary fiction. As the narrative weaves through and across time we come to understand why Tesarsch’s characters have developed in the way that they have – but slowly. We first meet Charles after he is awarded an Order of Australia for his charitable works, but in spite of this accolade, we know at the very beginning of the book that something isn’t right. What is wrong is the historic tragedy that sits like a stain at the centre of the story. Tesarsch’s narrative structure serves to bring the reader into consciousness of the tragedy with patience, cranking the tension all the while. If anything, the novel is almost too neat, too controlled in its exposition – like a trinket over-buffed, a little of what might have once produced its shine has now been rubbed away. Yet this is a minor gripe, and one happily made. For better a work be endowed with too much care, than nowhere near enough.
In contrast to the poetry in the structure, Tesarsch’s prose itself is crisp, almost terse – each sentence a hard, clean nugget of polished stone. That is, the writing is beautiful and eloquent and vivid, but not in the lyrical, language-drenched manner of some authors (Anne Michaels springs to mind) for whom metaphor and imagery are the stalwarts of their craft. Instead, Tesarsch builds description and exposes his characters with disarming straightforwardness, his style deceptively restrained. This restraint lends Tesarsch’s writing an enviable clarity. In fact, in light of The Philanthropist’s discontinuous structure: the various points-of-view and multi-generational plot line, the seeming straightforwardness of the author’s prose style serves only to enrich the narrative. There exists in Tesarsch’s writing the assuredness and poise of a far more experienced writer. Beyond this, his first novel, one can imagine many more neat, but quietly flooring stories, waiting to be penned.
A philanthropist can be defined as a person who practices charitable or benevolent actions, or one who loves humanity generally. It is a fitting title for Tesarsch’s novel, which ultimately examines the tensions between good deeds and bad, and the role that money plays in aiding and even defining both. The Philanthropist questions whether one who worships false gods, as Charles does, can truly love humanity. Or whether, despite all best efforts for charity, inheriting large amounts of money ultimately costs the humanity of oneself. It is a fitting message for contemporary Australia in an age of abundant wealth, and greed. It is what makes The Philanthropist not only an excellent first novel, but also a valuable addition to cultural development in Australia. By being shown ourselves in print, we learn something not only of who we are as human beings, but as a collective people. When Tesarsch writes about how the deeds of the past can haunt us, how money can corrupt, how guilt erodes and the way in which justice bought with cash is no real justice at all – there is a collective shiver in response. A kind of truth is painted by Tesarsch in The Philanthropist. It isn’t a beautiful picture, but remarkably, it looks just like us.
Alice Robinson writes fiction. She works as a freelance writer, professional book group and writing group facilitator, and she teaches in universities. Since 2008, Alice has been researching climate change and Australian literature at Victoria University, where she is a PhD candidate. Having been published in various journals, she also blogs on books and reading at www.critrature.blogspot.com.