The ninth satire is a mixture of “poetry, biographical fiction, non-fiction, dreams, fiction, portraiture, nonsense and comedy”. It’s a powerful collection, much more integrated than one would expect given the variety of styles and, indeed, variety of voices.
The title is taken from the Roman satirist Juvenal. His Satire Nine is the one quietly left out of collected translations and briefly described in otherwise lengthy descriptions of his work as “deals with vice”. In fact it deals with the problems a male prostitute has in conducting trade, the hypocrisy of his clients and city life in general.
Williams isn’t as vicious or obviously critical as Juvenal. I suspect the title has more to do with the way that aspects of contemporary living are just as quietly omitted or glossed over when what happened is eventually written up.
A number of the pieces deal with AIDS, often in ways that no other contemporary writer has tried. Williams continually challenges expectations. Carers are meant to be compassionate and motivated by selfless good, we don’t talk about their need to be needed. The unwell are meant to be brave and uncomplaining, we don’t talk about them being selfish or ungrateful. And death is talked about in the language of deepest sympathy cards, not with such lines as,
When someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
hen it is your turn to write about the dead do not write
About flowers, or afternoons in the sun, or cycles, or God.
Tell it as it was. Get out your hammer and drive the nail in.
There’s a similar raw honesty in the prose pieces, moving beyond the reassuring conventions and formulas we’ve come to expect. In ‘The Black King’ a man only gets to know his neighbour when he becomes a volunteer carer during the last months of his life. It’s an artificial relationship, not possible under any other circumstances. Neighbours in suburbia are meant to nod, smile and occasionally chat. The author and his neighbour play chess as the rules of their instant intimacy are established. When word gets out that he’s ill, the letterbox is filled with shit and his footpath is written on with red paint. It’s a chilling portrait of suburbia, lightened only by the ways in which various characters connect despite the circumstances.
Williams also confronts the question of who is speaking for whom. He includes the words and writings of others, pointing out the futility of claiming editorial independence. By placing and editing, he’s constructed a story as obviously as if he had written the words himself.
The ninth satire is a disturbing, challenging collection of work, one I can highly recommend. It’s published by Pariah Press, a Melbourne-based small publisher. If your local bookshop doesn’t have copies they can be obtained directly from the publisher, post free. It’s worth the effort.