22 Jan A LIFE IS A LIFE – BUT WHO OWNS IT?
This was written a while ago, after I read the acclaimed surfing novel the Life by Malcolm Knox. I was a little shocked to discover how heavily it borrowed from not only Michael Peterson’s life story but many other surfing books. I couldn’t find a home for it at the time – the literary world seemed unwilling to publish criticism of one of its leading lights, but I still thought it raised some valid points. I figured I may as well dust it off and give it a run here and invite your comments.
A LIFE IS A LIFE
The recent death of legendary Australian surfer Michael Peterson has shone new light on the inspiration for Australian novel, The Life.
Imagine for a moment you are part of an ancient indigenous culture in a part of the world rarely visited by westerners. You have a rich tradition of story-telling and music that is dear and precious to you.
Then, imagine a visiting, high-profile, world musician stumbles upon your music and is so swept up by it, he promptly goes away and records an album almost entirely based upon your music, with a few of his own flourishes and inflections, polished and produced to be made palatable for a general audience. You get a small mention in the liner notes, no royalties, not even a CD in the mail, while the world musician receives gushing praise from the music press about his bold new musical experiment. How might you feel? A little ripped off, perhaps? Violated even?
It’s taken me a while to get around to reading The Life, the surfing novel by acclaimed author Malcolm Knox. I felt uneasy that this literary titan had merely fictionalised the story of the recently deceased surf legend Michael Peterson, given it a few twists, and claimed it as his own. Didn’t we already have the real story, vividly rendered by Sean Doherty in his best-selling biography, MP? What I wasn’t prepared for was the degree to which Knox had mined the entire canon of modern surf literature and weaved it together into what he claims is an original work of fiction.
Others, most notably surf writer Nick Carroll, have pointed out the many similarities between MP and Knox’s creation, Dennis Keith. Known universally by his initials, DK is an overweight, washed up, late 50s, drug-addled, surf legend, living with his mother in a unit in Tweed Heads. It is a premise immediately familiar to any surfer. Almost all the details of DK’s story mirror MP’s, apart from a dark, morbid twist at the end.
What hasn’t been pointed out before is that The Life borrows heavily from a vast collection of surfing books, including a couple of my own. In fairness, Knox acknowledges them in an author’s note at the end. But I think The Life raises questions about the degree to which it is fair and ethical to borrow from other literary works, to weave together fiction and non-fiction, and present as your own invention the real life stories of numerous others.
A few examples: DK’s boards are run over by a beach-cleaning tractor in Hawaii after being buried in the sand. DK is superstitious about seeing certain numbers on car license plates before a contest. These episodes are straight out of “Occy – the rise and fall and rise of Mark Occhilupo.” The mother of a rival heckles DK in the queue at the bank, tells him that he is getting too old and will soon be overtaken by younger surfers. This really happened to Rabbit Bartholomew, at the hands of MP’s mum, as recounted in his biography “Bustin’ Down The Door.”
Perhaps the borrowed anecdote that struck me most strongly in The Life was this one, rendered in DK’s manic stream of consciousness, about DK’s brother Rod going for his first surf:
When Frank come in drug his whopping great redwood longboard behind him in the sand, Rod tag along after him and go: ‘Ya gunna gimme a go today?’
And Frank walk along like he’s thinking about it and then after a long while goes, ‘Nup.’
And that was it, day after day after day.
Then one day completely out of the blue, Little Big Shit thought about it for a bit and went, ‘Yep.’
He told Rod he has to swim out on his own. Frank’ll paddle the board out the back then give it to him. So that’s what they did. I stood on the beach and watched Frank paddle out, Rod swim out and then Frank gave Rod the big wooden board …
I was just standing there watching when a good wave come and Rod just sitting there rooted to his board, didn’t know how to turn it around and start paddling. Besides there was another bloke already riding the wave.
Rod just squatting there in the impact zone and there was mayhem, Frank’s board popping up in the air like a penny bunger and the other surfer falling off and screaming blue murder at Rod, and the next thing I knew Rod’s dumped Frank’s board, bodysurfing in on the next wave, the board’s washed in on another … and Rod gets to the sand and he doesn’t even stop to talk to me he’s just bolted in his trunks dripping wet up the hill and up the street to Shangrila (the family home)
This bears more than a passing resemblance to the tale of Rabbit’s very first surf on a borrowed board in Bustin’ Down The Door.
When he came in we went through a well-rehearsed ritual.
I’d go, ‘Are you going to give me a go today?’
And he’d go, ‘Nah.’ …
This went on every day for the whole of the holidays. Finally, it was the last day of the Christmas holidays and we were down at the beach. We’d gone through the whole rigmarole, the whole ritual.
I said, ‘Are you going to give me a go?’
And he’s gone, ‘Yep.’
I did the full double take, ‘Really?’
‘Yep, here’s the deal. You swim out the back, you swim all the way out the back … I’ll paddle the board out and when you get out behind the breakers I’ll give you the board.’
It sounded like a hell of a deal.
Next thing I knew I was out the back at Greenmount, he’d got off the board and bodysurfed in, and suddenly it was just me, sitting on a surfboard out the back at Greenmount … Next second this wave is peeling down Greenmount Point towards me … This bodysurfer took off about 50 meteres further out … He was headed towards me and I was sitting on this board and it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t know how to manoeuvre it … He came cruising along this wave … straight into the nose of my board. The wave exploded, the board went shooting up into the air, I went under and came up trying to figure out what had happened. This guy came up next to me with this hole in his head … and he roared at me, ‘You great galoot.’ And that was all he had to say. My adrenalin was pumping so hard and I was so scared I just swam straight to the beach. I didn’t stop. I didn’t look back. I didn’t even look to see where the board was. I hit the beach at a full run and I ran all the way home.
There are other traces of inspiration from US surf literature.
“You knew you were more a part of this coast than any other people were part of any place anywhere,” Knox writes in The Life.
“I am more a part of this life than most Americans are of any life anywhere,” Dan Duane writes in his surf novel Caught Inside.
There are presumably other similarities to other surfing books I haven’t picked up on. One of the most questionable aspects of The Life is the way Knox has weaved real life characters into DK’s story, like MP himself, Rabbit, Peter Townend and others, often portraying them inaccurately. He paints Simon Anderson as one of the new generation of starry-eyed, sponsored pro surfers who take inordinate delight in modeling their sponsor’s fashions. Anyone who knows Simon would attest that this couldn’t be further from the truth. By inter-twining fact and fiction, Knox leaves the reader confused about what to believe and distorts history. And by hugging the curves of MP’s life so closely, and then introducing a grisly murder into the plot, he invites the false impression that the Petersons might have some similarly awful skeletons in the closet (the usual author’s disclaimer about it being a work of fiction hardly suffices here, I’d argue).
Let me be clear. I think the writing in The Life is impressive – a wild, rambling, staccato rave capturing the tortured, haunting, inner voice of a deeply damaged soul, maintained convincingly for 300 or so pages. No mean feat. Plenty of non-surfers I know have loved it, without any knowledge of its debt to surfing folklore. Knox is clearly an accomplished writer, a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald no less and author of several well-received novels. The Life has earned almost universal praise from the literary world. I may be accused of mere jealousy.
Yet I find it ironic that Knox is perhaps best known for exposing the Norma Khouri literary scandal, whose memoir “Forbidden Love’ he revealed as a hoax. I am not suggesting The Life represents any such scandal. I feel some trepidation even daring to question the work of such a luminary. But as a writer who has examined the ethical boundaries of truth and lie, fact and fiction, I am surprised he felt at liberty to borrow so heavily from other’s real life stories.
Michael Peterson’s legend has been exploited, his image marketed and commercialized by many others, while he eked out a sad, shadow existence on a disability pension. A fund-raising drive was launched to cover the cost of his funeral, so that his 80-year-old mother Joan, who had cared for him almost his entire life, was not burdened with the cost. The Life seems yet one more example where others have profited from the MP legend.
Knox is apparently a recent mid-life convert to surfing, after his wife bought him a surfing lesson as gift. There is no shame in that. I imagine he came upon the existing library of surf biographies in the grip of his new-found surf lust. That he discovered a rich vein of inspiration in them is entirely reasonable. But it seems to me he has treated the authors and subjects of these works of non-fiction like a supposedly primitive tribe, whose culture he can borrow and plunder, polish up and present as his own to a whole new audience. I thought we might have been entitled to at least a few beads and mirrors.