About a month ago, an Internet friend’s self-published novel made its way from all the way around the world into my eager hands. Before that, I’d been following—let’s call him Mick Dundee—online for almost two years. Two years of journeys around the world for him and minding toddlers at home for me. Because of the time difference, one of Mick’s fabulous, wittily-captioned travel posts would often make its way into my hands just as my son stirred, crying to be breastfed as dawn’s light leeched the night from the sky. Maybe it was that extra level of intimacy that made me feel I’d truly begun to know this man and his exquisite daily documentation of his travels and writing travails. Though I’d read over and over the long, descriptive passages of the buildings he’d encountered, I hadn’t read any of his self-published novels, which he produces at the admirable clip of one per year.
How, I wondered—often with my breast in a little mouth and my phone in my hand, staring in longing at this tiny, bright window of careless cares—how is he doing this? Not only writing a novel a year but also gathering a following while doing so, which, as I was learning while trying to flog my first chapbook online, is a full-time endeavor in itself. Admittedly, some of his online success was good old-fashioned genetics; my eponymous, Internet-famous Mick Dundee was as blue of eye as that other, more traditionally famous movie star. But that’s not what really attracted me to his platform.
What attracted me was his mad confidence in himself and his writing. Publishing to me is a kind of crocodile—sharp teeth and the genuine possibility of being rolled underwater unto some murky end, and here he was tackling the beast all on his lonesome.
Self-publishing, despite spectacular success stories like the Wool series, The Night Circus, and others, carries a stigma. But that stigma is, arguably, fading. Some of it is rebranding. “Indie author” has a ring to it, not dissimilar to the appeal of “Crocodile Dundee.” Are self-published authors rejects from the traditional publishing world? No! They’re independent mavericks with a vision that cannot be denied no matter how many stuck-up New York tastemakers and gatekeepers try to silence their artistic perspective.
Despite my fraught and complicated reaction to Mick’s self-published book, I applaud anyone with the guts to stand behind their work. Financially, it has also worked out very well for a handful of authors. The Kindle Million club now includes several of these indie authors. Amanda Hocking and John Locke sit in the august company of George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling. Considering the list is only 14 members long, their inclusion is no small thing, especially when you consider the only criterion for entry: the ability to move seven figures worth of e-books.
For someone who struggled to shift 500 copies of her chapbook, it’s marketing on a mind-boggling scale.
The varied dos or don’ts of the self-publishing world is another essay for another day, though. This tale is about how I myself was hood-winked like a lowly crocodile in the dark abyss of a deep-water internet dive by that indie, Dundee. I misread him so wholly, it truly was as if I’d been hypnotized. Was I so superficial that a pair of blue eyes could blind me to a writer’s deep, troubling faults?
I’m not usually drawn to men’s looks. I’ve never been able to keep the flame lit for an actual actor. Admittedly, I can go on admiring someone like Idris Elba, even after having listened to him speak in his own self-produced disaster of a documentary about his time in South Africa. This line was enough to help me understand why, in real life, he’s still single: “I don’t write music. I don’t make music. I hear music.”
But I swear my attraction wasn’t Mick’s looks! It was his writing. His Insta captions were chock-full of nostalgia for another time. In retrospect, his deep-seated longing to be alone, gazing at the Arno in Venice perhaps masked a creepy variety of Australian white supremacy. His obsessions with buildings instead of people reminiscent of Germany’s worst dictator. When his obsessions were examined in depth throughout a novel, the parallels were unmistakable.
From the get-go, the prose of Mick’s novel was archaic to the point of absurdity, which was amusing in itself. No one probably spoke such swirly purple prose in 1861, let alone 2016. Initially, the author’s ache for the past seemed to represent an eye-rolling, infuriating, but not unusual macho desire for simpler times when men were men and rode horses and commanded other men in battles.
And then, it happened: one of those horses was called the N-word.
The main character, billed as a “politically incorrect man’s man,” had named the horses, and I hoped, more for my sake than anyone else’s, that this was the sort of off-tone term that an author, unedited, unaided, and unabetted, would accidentally employ hoping to demonstrate the grotesqueness of his MC. I didn’t want to believe I’d been so mistaken in anyone’s character as to have bought a book by an Australian Milo Yannoupolis.
I began to lose hope a few pages later.
A roman à clef is a novel in which real people or events appear with invented names, but, on page 61, the author, by which I mean the main character—who resemble each other down to their aquamarine eyes and the deep grooves in their cheeks—breaks up with his real-life girlfriend, whose name, in a bout of pure, selfish laziness, he hadn’t even bothered to change for the sake of his Instagram followers, who all knew all about her. Out of slightly more consideration, we’ll call her Lily.
Book-Lily doesn’t want to be broken up with, so the MC does the only logical thing. He waits until she’s in a pool and grabs a handy crocodile. Just as in real life, these characters are cavorting in Cambodia, whose lush greenness had so attracted me to his Instagram posts.
“I said get the fuck out.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
The crocodile jolted its body again, its snout snapping left and its tail whipping right. “Oh wouldn’t I?” [MC] raised his eyebrows and tossed the thing belly-first into the pool. [Lily] screamed and splashed urgently for the decking as the reptile swam for her… In one frantic movement she was out of the water and prancing from fright…
[MC] said as he strode past her, “Now get the fuck out.”
More troubling even than this casual presentation of racism and misogyny is how much love is lathered over the MC: his behavior isn’t ever presented as problematic/viciously abusive. (In real life, our Lily will dump Mick in a public spat on Instagram, and who, having read this, could blame her?)
From these auspicious beginnings, the book truly becomes cringe-worthy. The main storyline involves the MC’s return to suburban Australia, having lived abroad for some time, ignorant of technology’s more invasive new fads—the premise which drew me to the book. However, it’s not so much apps like Instagram (which our author himself is a fan of) but the effete, modern men the MC encounters that draw his ire. His former friends are represented as being manscaped by inane mermaid-wannabes. More egregious, the MC is horrified to discover his own brother is gay. He mocks his brother’s need for therapy, and on another occasion flatly states, “There are immigrants everywhere. And gays.”
This isn’t political correctness. It’s something else. Something more insidious, cruel, stupid, and vicious, even. While I loathe some of the more hardline, P.C. folks—having encountered them on two memorable occasions in which I accidentally said something misrepresenting my own meaning and was thoroughly spanked—the alt-right is legions scarier. They don’t see their own prejudice as being political. They consider their opinions to be legitimate observations of human behavior in a perfect vacuum, not views representative of a centuries-old patriarchy, and that ignorance is what makes them so much more terrifying. With them, the devil is not in the details, the devil has instead pulled his greatest trick, in that in their estimation he doesn’t exist.
While I loathe some of the more hardline, P.C. folks, the alt-right is legions scarier. They don’t see their own prejudice as being political. With them, the devil is not in the details, the devil has instead pulled his greatest trick, in that in their estimation he doesn’t exist.
“I don’t write about politics,” Mick Dundee recently posted on Instagram as an inducement to follow his page and purchase his books, which he bills as the funniest you’ll ever read. Lately, I’ve been looking at his page a lot, wondering how other people are reacting to one of the most offensive books I’ve ever read, barring passages from Mein Kampf.
An overstatement? I’ll let you, the reader, decide:
• The MC sees a mixed-race couple shopping in a supermarket and murmurs, “Miscegenation.” That was page 106. At that point, I’d lost all control and was crawling across inexplicably-published text zingers like, “Fuck you, Mick Dundee.”
• On page 116, the MC throws his gay brother’s small dog, which he despises for its cuteness, over a fence and into an empty pool.
• On more than two occasions, he rufies entire parties of people in what are meant to be amusing incidents. Maybe they haven’t heard of Bill Cosby over in Australia, but I didn’t find anything funny or charming about that.
Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but the book was neither angry enough to be about a sick man nor light enough to be about a politically incorrect one.
• On page 134, the MC observes “there are Taliban and homosexuals at the supermarket.” These kind of Islamophobic assertions, when repeated often enough, normalize a particularly virulent form of racism that has resulted, at least in the U.S., in horrific instances of violence. I’m less familiar with Australia, but at this point, I only continued reading the 333-page tome to gain some insight into the racism of another, similar culture to ours.
• Chinese people are often rendered as inhuman automatons, leading me to draw the conclusion that racism against Asians takes a more virulent form closer to Asia.
• On page 168, I found the kicker: The MC has been ticketed for jaywalking despite the fact several Chinese people also jaywalked in the same spot:
“Why don’t you fine them?” [MC] pointed to a trio of people sprinting to cross the street beside him.
“They probably don’t speak English.”
“…because I speak the language I’m the one that has to follow your pointless rules? While foreigners flaunt them and do whatever the fuck they want because they can’t speak English?”
“Pretty much, yep.”
“…plus,” added the first officer. “If we fine them, their dads might stop investing in our country.”
“And they are the future,” said Officer Stacey.
“So what am I then?”
Aw, poor white male! Maybe Jeff Sessions can take a trip to Australia after he’s done defending all the poor white people in America who are victimized by reverse racism as much as our poor little blue-eyed Dundee down under.
Not a page later, again, we have an explicitly racist case of Islamophobia. The MC is ticketed yet again, this time for parking illegally.
“Who employs you people? They don’t have jobs for parking inspectors in Bombay?”
“I am from Sri Lanka, sir.”
“Good for fucking Sri Lanka,” is the witty reply.
Now, Izzy, you might be thinking, maybe all this is to show how bad and angry and wrong Islamophobia and that sort of thing is? Which might be an argument but for how self-righteous and beloved a thing this MC is represented.
He’s given a voice in this novel—a lovingly rendered voice—and what he voices is dark stuff that, even a few years ago, would have been whispered but is now being pridefully and cheerfully shouted from these pages.
“I imagine it feels free for you, Gunga Din, but for someone who grew up with clean drinking water among rolling hills of pasture it feels a bit like we’re regulating ourselves out of existence. Only to be replaced by sniveling brownwarts like you … Do you even have any self-respect? Look at the job you’re doing. Why would you even come here? We don’t want to live here. We don’t live here. Not in the true sense of the word. It’s a fucking prison. Its open spaces are regulated down to the millimeter. Do any Australians even live here anymore? And then we have to import cheap labour to enforce the regulations we’ve placed on ourselves that make us not want to live her in the first place. This is a cycle of history. Civilization has so overgrown us that we employ rickshaw drivers to come and tell us what we can and can’t do. This, a Grecian Rome … What the fuck are you doing here and pretending you’re Australian in your little hat there?”
“I have been an Australian citizen for eight years.”
“Eight years? Wow. My great grandfather built half this city with his benevolence and his money…”
And so forth.
But ah, there it is. The crux of the problem: a hearkening back to a fictitious past of greatness (that conveniently ignores Australia’s actual first inhabitants) that never existed, not really.
“How are the democrats to gain any real power?” I hear John Favreau wailing on Pod Save America every week. They aren’t willing to take “real” power the way Republicans have so unapologetically been doing, playing with the kind of brutal narrative that accidentally fell into my hands and made me sick to my stomach.
Maybe Trump supporters are all equally as naïve as I was with blue-eyed Mick, the expert Instagram novelist. They think they know Trump based on a fictitious presentation. They’re attracted to his megalomania the way I was attracted to Mick Dundee’s confidence in his own writing, his willingness to put his book where his mouth is. But we can’t continue to mistake a willingness to take power for masculinity.
Because it’s that same grandiose narrative powering the Republican party that powers this book. A hearkening back to a simpler, also fictitious past where a certain kind of white man felt ascendant over everyone, women, people of color, people of other religions, anyone gender fluid, and didn’t have to apologize for glorying in those feelings. It’s the apology that irks them, I think.
I know it stuck in my craw when I was expected to “stand down and shut up” as my own P.C. troll ordered me to do on that occasion when I misspoke online. However, my sense of self is not crafted atop a carefully calibrated kind of femininity the way Mick’s is on being perceived as a powerful white man. I see myself as a person journeying into an uncertain future that, despite everything, I still think has the power to be better than the present and will certainly be better than the past. The future is impossible to know. Maybe that is why this narrative lacks the kind of imagination-fueling power as books like Mick Dundee’s which describe the past in these hallowed, nausea-inducing terms:
“We made the earth rich. Overpopulated by heathen beggars, the rest of the world is only now discovering the glories of our civilization . For a white man’s worth to now fall below that even of a Hindoo … I’d as soon be dead.”
For men like Mick Dundee, the world is understood as a system of rankings. Who has the most power is the most ascendant and has the most agency—agency isn’t seen as an internal thing to cultivate but an external thing to be taken from someone else. Or, as one of my Trump-supporting in-laws once put her views on immigration, “There is only so much food on the table.”
Never mind that we were eating in a restaurant undoubtedly in which her food had been cooked either by very recent immigrants or even illegal ones.
I don’t understand why voices like Mick’s and my in-law’s now suddenly feel so emboldened to speak. Is it that they can, unfiltered and unfettered on social media, with huge, supportive followings to boot? In The Circle, Dave Eggers describes social media as being a dystopian distortion of the near future.
I think that future is upon us, but some of us have mistaken it for the past. It’s up to the rest of us to imagine a different future, and I for one don’t plan to sit down and shut up about it—even if I get something wrong.