I reread Red shift on a regular basis. But if there are three phrases in Garner’s career then it marks the end of the second. Strandloper either began the most recent phase or hinged the second and third parts.
The first time I tried to read Strandloper I shipwrecked half way through. It’s not possible to convey how abrupt and painful that was. Here was 'my' author, the man I’d grown up reading, and here was a book with his name on it that I couldn’t read.
Garner’s writing had been heading towards an obdurate minimalism. He had faith the reader would make the connections and follow. But in Standloper it felt as though he’d gone into the language and found a layer that was older and richer yet baffling. Whatever he’d pulled up into the daylight made no sense to me. The book tells a story about William Buckley, who is transported to Australia, escapes the penal settlement, attempts to ‘walk home via China’, is adopted by the indigenous peoples and finally makes it ‘home’.
I knew about thieves cant, I knew about historical dialect and slang, I’d read about Songlines but none of it helped.
In retrospect, I went at the book from the wrong direction. As the head of an English department I needed a novel set in Australia, dealing with Indigenous themes, for the work program I was writing. There was a unit to be called Many Voices, and from the publisher’s blurb (this was before Goodreads and the like) this book sounded as though it were exactly what I needed.
Books can resent the attempt to misuse them. I was looking to use it. I was reading it as a teacher, anticipating the assignment that would need to be set, anticipating my students’ reactions. The book shrugged me off.
Garner outlined his relationship with teachers of literature in ‘Hard Cases’, published in The Voice That Thunders. It's an essay every English teacher should read. It makes me want to apologise for my profession and claim we're not all like that. I had fallen into a pattern of thought that whatever its noble or justifiable aims is a use of literature, and like any 'use' reductive.
In retrospect #2, I realise It was a very silly idea, not just over ambitious but thoughtless. I’m glad I never inflicted the book on a class. It is the first of Garner’s books that defies the categories of publishing, and creates a Model reader who has no age or gender. To use a phrase: ‘It takes no prisoners’.
I’ve reread Strandloper several times since that first attempt. It might well be the long narrative poem the Modernist poets never managed to write. Ignore the dubious distinction between verse and prose which is redundant with Garner anyway, read it as though you’re reading a poem with a plot, and it’s a magnificent awkward journey that repays all the effort it requires.