Reviewed: Peter Polites, The Pillars, Hachette, 2019
I’m re-reading The Pillars in a small box-like room in a high-density apartment block in Kensington (Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung lands of the Eastern Kulin Nations) while preparing a guest lecture for third-year architecture students. The apartments are structurally sound, but friends have occasionally commented that they resemble a prison, where long corridors eerily absent of residents look onto a large communal courtyard that is never used. Double security gates reinforce our safety as I wonder what developers imagined they were protecting us from.
This is high-quality urban living in a desirable neighbourhood, where murals in landscaped parklands illustrate the history of First Peoples with a similar uneasiness to Peter Polites’ western Sydney. In his second novel The Pillars, homogeneous suburbs such as Pemulwuy ‘are named after an Aboriginal warrior who fought against the colonisers during the Frontier Wars’. These urban landscapes pervade Australia and are reinforced by the cognitive dissonance of the built environment industry. And as the industry and wider public consciousness search for resolution through reconciliation, I increasingly turn to texts such as The Pillars. Its bleak depiction of place and identity—one that mediates between unbelonging and possession—is as clarifying as it is devastating.
The novel’s central character, Pano, is a queer second-generation Greek-Australian poet whose desire for success oscillates between materialism and artistic credibility. In his attempt to get there his actions are cruel, which painfully and comically distort the ‘Australian dream’—or, more accurately, middle-class entitlement to home ownership. His central relationships pivot between property owners: whether it’s Kane, his white Aussie housemate-cum-landlord and lover, or Basil, a high school friend and now developer making it on the market. Towards the end of the book, Pano’s most fatalistic move towards material possession involves exploiting his own mother, which sees him devise a merciless plot with Basil to develop the government housing she lives in, hoping that wealth (in the form of a finder’s fee) will lead to worldly validation. Through these relationships, we witness a relentless desire to claim space and identity through ownership or proximity to it.
Occasionally Pano appears critical, smugly explaining to Basil’s girlfriend Kamilla the first time they meet that his poetry ‘wasn’t that nice’, differentiating himself from the ‘Instagram pop poets’ she is familiar with. He describes how her ‘skin was too orange’ as if her fakeness reaffirms his own identity as stable and authentic. But we find out almost immediately that he is equally entwined in the superficiality that disgusts him, meticulously describing Basil’s apartment (‘The Pinnacle—which—of course—he had named’) in some detail.It is undeniable that envy coexists with the disdain.
These types of interactions repeat throughout the novel and are often unpleasant to read. But they provide a far more realistic insight into Australia than what the left-leaning white middle class or model migrants are willing to acknowledge. The Pillars’ strength is its relentless dive into the ugliness of capitalism—its characters appear grotesque until you realise that they are recognisable. They are the logic of settler colonialism and our complicity is evident.
In some ways, the book fictionalises place, property and the construction of Australian nationhood as theorised by Goenpul Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson. In The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, she writes that ‘cities signify with every building and every street that this land is now possessed by others; signs of white possession are embedded everywhere in the landscape’. This type of settler control of landscape and place echoes violently throughout The Pillars—the aspirational suburb of Pemulwuy exists to reinforce Anglo-Australian identity.
This fortification of settler colonial Australia surfaces with frightening palpability through Kane’s vehement opposition to a proposed mosque in the neighbourhood. Property ownership or white possession has erased the Sovereignty of Darug, Eora, Dharawal (also referred to as Tharawal) and Wiradjuri people in the settler consciousness, yet ‘Kane was determined to keep the original character of a suburb that was built a whole ten years ago’. In this conceptualisation of the suburb asserted through ownership, traditional custodianship is nullified. Anglo-Australian identity is established through formulaic housing developments or possession of unceded lands, which, as Moreton-Robinson notes:
In the Australian context, the sense of belonging, home, and place enjoyed by the non-Indigenous subject—coloniser/migrant—is based on the dispossession of the original owners of the land and the denial of our rights under international customary law. It is a sense of belonging derived from ownership as understood within the logic of capital, and it mobilises the legend of the pioneers, ‘the battler’ in its self-legitimisation.
Eventually, Kane builds a campaign to rid the suburb of the mosque by engaging the people around him. They include Pano, Lorna, a white middle-class Aussie, and Walid, a Muslim who is reassured that the problem isn’t his religion or community but the physical association that the architecture elicits. ‘The prices are inclining down nationally, something needs to happen … The mosque down the street … may be a real problem in the future’ he mutters. For the ‘Aussie battler’, a presence or perception problem does more than lower house prices; it risks derailing the foundation of their identity and nationhood as constructed through ownership and the built form aesthetics of Anglo-Australian suburbia. In this imagining, foreign architecture must be removed in order to maintain this identity, which is assumed to have always existed as terra nullius. For Anglo Australians like Kane, settler amnesia has wiped out the cultures preceding it, so the fight to preserve a ten-year-old suburb becomes urgent. The homogeneity of these master-planned suburbs reaffirms their sense of self and must be protected.
As the narrative progresses, this conflation of identity with ownership is often heightened for non-Anglo Australians like Pano. The aspiration to belong in Anglo-Australia means that he is willing to reframe his identity for other people. When Kane suggests that he ‘pretends to be Muslim—a voice against the Mosque’ so he ‘wouldn’t have to sell up, to avoid losing value on his house’, Pano agrees. To achieve this he appears in the local queer paper Pink Triangle Times with the headline above his photo stating ‘Gay Muslim Fears for Life with New Mosque’.
It is disorienting and vicious to see a minority exploiting another minority, but for Pano, the desire to fit in is desperate. When he accepts that a relationship with Kane is unlikely as he overhears his latest hook-up, he laments how ‘I could have been happy with Kane, grown old with his leathery neck and upper-range IT life. The grunts and woofs coming through the door were bombs dropping on my suburban aspirations.’ In Pano’s eyes, losing Kane is far more than romantic or sexual—it is the loss of the suburban dream, bombs dropping on his entitlement to home ownership and belonging in Anglo-Australia.
Polites is critical of the compulsion to conform to Anglo-centric conceptions of self, but he is equally conscious of the throbbing need for acceptance. At one point in The Pillars, as Pano reflects on his childhood, he describes how his mum and aunt Cassie would scream at the TV while watching Nad’s hair removal ads. They are simultaneously reassured by the representation of other ethnicities with dark body hair, as much as they are relieved that they are being offered a solution to adhere to Westernised body norms.
He recalls how ‘as a child, I looked at the red marks on her legs and saw them as borders across her body. I remember aunt Cassie hovering over her, a faithful guide to the green goo. She had foretold that the waxing would cause pain.’ The borders or red marks across his mother’s legs signify the boundaries that dominant cultures assert on marginalised bodies, and how different body types attempt to cross them even as we acknowledge that it causes pain.
This pain resurfaces when Pano agrees to write Basil’s memoir, without understanding that he will be ghostwriting it. He is briefly unnerved when he realises his name will be removed. But he accepts the job and Basil compensates for this anonymity by upping his payment. And while both characters are Greek Australian, the temporary adoption of Basil’s lavish confidence reflects the career and personal trajectory Pano is on, which is grounded in wealth accumulation as much as it is located in cultural ambition. Stepping into Basil’s identity becomes an opportunity for Pano to experience what ownership feels like; diluting his own integrity becomes an easy sacrifice. As he later explains, ‘I had to change my actions, ways and beliefs to get what I wanted. And it was going to be uglier than caking my face with inch-thick foundation and as painful as a full body wax.’
As I prepare slides for future architects on the theme ‘Australia Today: The Possibility of a Treaty’, the construction of Australian identity through ownership feels like an impenetrable barrier to its ultimate goal. The ‘possibility’ is also confounding, because it is happening but disconnected from land-based justice. And while a range of Aboriginal people have voiced these concerns for decades, the built environment industry remains fixated on superficial content about Treaty and digestible concepts such as ‘Indigenous design’. It is this discomfort that The Pillars captures, where Pano’s outbursts criticising those who want ‘the luxe car and latest LV’ remind me of the way architects, designers and planners crave discussions about ‘decolonising’ cities, but do not want to give anything up. These attitudes surface when it is convenient or fashionable but rarely lead to meaningful change.
I’m often asked to discuss deeper ways to connect to Country in situations more comparable to Basil’s developer circles as if a guest presentation mitigates the capitalistic motivations of another statement development. The industry’s culpability is eased through this engagement where First Nations representation distracts from the omnipresence of white control. Accepting these offers feels like an unsettling version of the Muslims—real and fake—whom Kane employs to assert his ownership over Pemulwuy. Our visibility is used in these campaigns and processes to hide the legacy of colonisation where the creation and preservation of place is designed to reaffirm Anglo-Australian identity.
Preparing lectures like these often feels as deceitful as if I were to accept tokenistic engagements from architecture firms. I never quite know how to locate my identity without feeling as if I’m reinforcing their whiteness and authority by offering a smattering of culture that adheres to diversity strategies. Halfway through making slides that were useful for future architects and critical of capitalistic motivations, I decided to quit—I could not assert a Sovereign position without feeling disingenuous, as if I was there to make them feel good. If I were to go ahead, it would only seem to feed into the cognitive dissonance of the industry, which mirrors Basil’s motivations where ‘we submitted plans with only eight storeys … But then, made it nine. Decided to cop a fine instead. The fine? Nothing, bro! Only one-sixth of what an apartment in the building costs. Peanuts.’ Anything I had to offer would be compromised by the denial of this reality.
Unlike Walid and Pano I refuse to become complicit in these agendas, but refusal becomes complicated in a nation grounded by capitalism. As minority identities are increasingly monetised and valued in this setting, it is understandable to see some gravitate towards opportunities where your identity is momentarily celebrated, and you are able to belong—even if this belonging requires you to conform to destructive agendas. In her review essay of the same novel in the Sydney Review of Books, Cher Tan asserts that within the narrow construction of Australian nationhood, we live in a world relentlessly ruled by capital:
it seems improbable to imagine another reality that doesn’t hinge on the idea of ‘more’—capitalist realism, if you will … But the question that really presents itself here is this: What will you do with these intents? And in the quest for a seat at the dominant table, where one can finally escape the stain of marginalisation, what are you willing to give up, and who or what will go down with it?
More than ever I am invited to the dominant table but it is illusionary—the seat of inclusion is fleeting and comes at a cost. And in The Pillars, Pano is prepared to pay; like many others he is bound by capitalist imperatives that are inescapable. There are no obvious solutions when even anti-capitalism is capitalised, and marginalised identities are celebrated as quickly as they are denigrated again. But acknowledging these fraught spaces and the dark intents that follow is an important place to begin, and The Pillars depicts this uneasy predicament with unapologetic accuracy. As the design industry and white Anglo consciousness zealously gravitate towards Bla(c)k literature in the wake of global movements, it is Polites’ exhaustive illustration of capitalism personified by Pano, Kane and Basil that could also awaken a critical awareness of the nation’s fallibility. It is difficult reading but offers an astute image of the sour longings and suburban aspirations of settler nations.
Timmah Ball is a nonfiction writer of Ballardong Noongar heritage whose writing is influenced by studying and working in the field of urban planning.