Author Briohny Doyle is influenced by ”the guilty pleasure” of disaster films. Photo: Paul JeffersThere are more spectacular scenes of destruction to be found in other epics but Briohny Doyle’s favourite disaster flick is The Towering Inferno.
The 1974 pioneering film features strong, stoic male leads in Paul Newman and Steve McQueen and was made long before directors “realised you only needed one or two survivors and a crazed mass to hang the scenes of destruction around”.
“Despite the age of the film, many of the action sequences are chilling – characters run out into the fire, and fall down 100-floor elevator shafts,” says Doyle. “The crowd staring up at the burning high rise reminds the viewer of those famous pictures of the audience at Nevada nuclear tests.”Narrative representations of apocalyptic disaster were the subject of Doyle’s PhD at Murdoch University and made their way into her debut novel, The Island Will Sink, set in a future world of environmental catastrophe.
The novel follows Max Galleon, the “godfather of immersive cinema”, who is planning his next epic as fears grow for the stability of a sinking Pitcairn Island and the risk of an end-times tsunami.
The Island Will Sink is a deep and demanding read. Doyle postulates a world in which climate change has hastened social change and political control and exacerbated the gap between the haves and have-nots, but one in which society has ultimately adapted to climatic deprivations.
Environmental behaviour is policed by a corporate motivational mascot and the urban city sits beneath an eco-dome.
Galleon is a wealthy man who doubts his memories and begins to write his own life into his films. “There was a long period of time when I hadn’t read the book between edits and coming back to him I was like, ‘he’s not a nice guy that I’ve invented’. But at other times I felt quite sympathetic. He does come to see the connection between himself and others.”
The current wave of climate-change literature is an attempt by writers to grapple with the speed of change, Doyle says. “We can all see the dystopian scenarios and it’s quite an appealing thing to get into and pull apart, and see how it would work; it’s a fun thing for writers to do – and painful.”
Doyle has learned from reading disaster narratives down the ages that the “end times” always feel imminent to those experiencing dramatic and unknowable change.
“What’s different though about our particular moment is how much we are consuming these images and video clips of crisis,” she says.
“Crisis is being beamed to us in real time on a 24-hour news cycle, and that is a big thread in my book. How much more engaged could you get? So engaged to the point where in my book you can get a haptic, immersive, virtual reality crisis as it is happening?”
Doyle wrote the first draft in 2007 and ’08, pursued university study, and came back to the manuscript at various points, introducing a few plot changes but retaining the essential filmic structure.
“I did get advice from an early potential editor who read an early draft, who said you should rewrite it as a verse novella. “I said, ‘I can’t do that, it’s too big in my mind’.”
The Island Will Sink is the first book to be published by the literary magazine The Lifted Brow, part of a project to unearth exciting provocative and experimental writing which otherwise might not find a trade publisher.
“I envisaged that our first book, and that our list in the short to medium term, would be largely non-fiction,” says publisher Sam Cooney. “As this is where we saw, and still see, a big gap in the Australian market: for works of lyrical and narrative non-fiction that are experimental in approach or form. Think of recent works like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and look at many other works from publishers like Graywolf, Verso, Semiotexte, and even McSweeney’s.
“But the very fact that Briohny’s novel is so exceptional, and that it’s been 10 years in the making and had a couple of large stumbling blocks during which Briohny almost abandoned it, and also that it is by a longtime contributor to our magazine, means that it’s ultimately a perfect fit for us.”
Doyle, 33, teaches literature at Deakin University. Growing up she wanted to be an actress, then a filmmaker, and at age 17, at Newtown Performing Arts High School she discovered the pleasures of writing around big ideas.
“You do it on your own and all you need is a pencil,” says Doyle. “You don’t need any money.”
The aesthetics of the auteur David Lynch and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are as influential to the ambitions of The Island Will Sink as the works of Kurt Vonnegut and Michel Houellebecq.
Not to mention the guilty pleasure of all those disaster films with their thin plots and underdeveloped characters. As bad as they are, they make compulsive viewing, says Doyle.
The Island Will Sink, Briohny Doyle, The Lifted Brow, $29.99
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