TIM WINTON – The Riders: A Postmodern Text

If listed, postmodern characteristics that apply to texts would read as follows: multiple narratives, different points-of-view, plurality of meaning, reader response, reader participation, dark themes, fractured world, open-ended texts, wide variety of and mixed genre, boundary breaking, gaps, metafiction, social criticism, and the replacement of marginalised groups into texts.

D Lewis, in ‘The Constructedness of Texts’, after describing how “[m]etafiction … refus [es] to take for granted how stories should be told and thus implicitly comment[s] upon the nature of fiction itself” (Lewis, 1990, p.132), continues to state that there are three main features of postmodernism – “narrative boundary-breaking or ‘slippage’, excess, and indeterminacy.” (ibid, p. 133).

Geoff Moss, in ‘Metafiction, Illustration, and the Poetics’ propounds that:

postmodernism pictures a subjective, relativistic world
[and] is …. a process, perpetually in construction, per-
petually contradictory, perpetually open to change, …
where the self is decentred …[and there is] a plurality
of discourses.  (Moss, 1992, pp. 54-55)

I believe that a great number of these attributes can be found in Tim Winton’s novel, The Riders. With an antihero, Scully, who behaves melodramatically, and moves from controlled happiness to extreme depression, from respectability to degradation, at its centre, The Riders inexorably evolves from realist to postmodern fiction.

Refusing to take for granted how stories should be told, with chapter eleven Winton turned the ordinary into the extraordinary, moving away from the realism that the first ten chapters promise, into a post-modern text – multi-layered like an onion, to be peeled back until the bitter bit in the middle, the end of Scully’s quest, was reached.

He introduced a fantasy genre, dark themes, into the realist narrative with his descriptions of the riders at the castle keep.  Their role in the narrative is debatable, being a form of indeterminacy and having plurality of meanings – psychological, psychical, symbolic, or structural.  Do they represent Scully’s internal psychological journey towards wholeness?  Are they psychic phenomena derived from the antiquity of the Celtic myth?  Do they symbolize his unyielding wait for Jennifer and for an answer to her disappearance?  Are they narrative devices, bracketing the search for his wife from the rest of the text?

Although realist texts, of singular genre, often contain dream sequences, the surreal nature of those frequently scattered throughout The Riders adds another fantasy element to the mixing of genre.  The disappearance of Jennifer, the nature of Scully’s search, and Alex’s death add the mystery genre to the mix.  There is also an implied travel diary as Scully’s physical journey is documented across the continent, showing the reality of the street life of the various countries visited, rather than the tourist spots.

Winton wrote the entire text in the third person, as an omni-scient narrator who relates the action from various character’s viewpoints, opening their feelings and thoughts to the scrutiny of the reader.  He moves from one character’s position to another, giving the impression that there are many narrators, while in actuality there are many voices, viewpoints, but only one narrator.  The uncertainty this creates, the layering of the narratorial voices, is postmodern.

There are a few metafictional moments, narratorial boundary-breaking, that cause reader confusion, destabilising the suspension of disbelief that accompanies the reading of fiction.  One occurred on the Greek island, while Scully and Billie, en route to visit Alex, trekked through villages.  As they passed through one, Billie stopped to listen to classroom chanting. “[Scully] let her stay till she’d had enough.  He said nothing.  What could you say?” (Winton, 1994, p.144)  To remain conventional it should have read: ‘What could he say?’  The omniscient narrator was describing actions and musings by Scully, and actions by Billie in third person particular.  Directed at the reader, this second person device not only asks them to agree with Scully, but also draws their attention to the fact that it is a work of fiction, a book, that they are reading.

The unreliability of the dominating narratorial voice, Scully’s, is another postmodern device.  An optomist, his naive views of people were shattered all through the book – he seemed to know less and less about his own past as the quest for his wife progressed.

So many characters in the novel seemed to know more about her disappearance than Scully, but unlike in a realist novel where eventually he would be permitted to know, these answers were withheld from him.  As he pursued those with knowledge of Jennifer, he allowed himself to be fobbed off with words, foiled by spite, turned aside by disdain, rather than give in to aggression to gain the required information.  Until Amsterdam.  There his explosion into drunken violence causes the reader to question the reliability of his calm quiet kind character traits, and wonder if Marianne was right to ask him:

‘Did you beat her much, Scully?  Were you rough in bed,
were you ‘ard on her, Scully?’ …. ‘You are a basher, aren’t
you, Scully?’  (ibid, p. 281)

The questioning of which is plot and which is subplot is also  postmodern.  The discovery that the actual primary plot is Scully’s self-examination to ‘find himself’, his internal journey, rather than the apparent primary plot of the frustrating search for his wife, creates confusion as the narrative unfolds.  Realist novels have a plot, with subplots intertwined, comprising a beginning, a middle, and an end which is conclusive, providing answers to most if not all questions raised in the text – providing a sense of closure.  The Riders does not do this.

Scully’s frustrations are shared by the reader, who is constantly asking  “Why doesn’t he go to the police?  Why won’t he ask the right questions?  Why?  Why? Why?” throughout the narrative.  It is clearly an open-ended text, showing a fractured world, evoking reader response and participation.  Scully’s internal journey, at the end of which his search was over – what he sought was unequivocally dead, as dead as the riders at the castle keep – is secondary in the eyes of the reader, who like Scully, just wants to know.  It seems Tim Winton prefers not to divulge the answers, not to tie up the loose threads.  Active readers must make up their own minds, reach their own conclusions, find closure where they can.  This lack of authorial closure is postmodern.

The changing of tenses from past to present, usually to change narratorial voice position, at intervals throughout the text, is another postmodern device used in The Riders.  While the bulk of the narrative is written in past tense, the present tense chapters seem to serve the following function: 5 offers Jimmy Brereton’s views of the newcomers to the Bothy; 12 shows Billie in the plane; 15 introduces Arthur Lipp and his views of the Australians; 19 Alex Moore’s views; 35 Peter Kenneally’s concerns for Scully; 38 Jennifer (?); and 47 Irma’s reaction to being deserted by Scully with her cash.  Seven different character’s viewpoints are foregrounded in present tense, providing corroborative and additional information to the narrative.

There are two odd chapters in present tense describing landscapes – 32 Australia (?); and 53 the Bothy and castle in Ireland.  The question whether it is Australia engages the reader in active participation with the text, and their placement, their recognition of the vivid descriptions could depend upon their nationality.

In chapter 31, another oddity occurs – Winton intermingles past and present tenses in verb and participle form, during the revelation of Billie’s worries:

Billie [tried] to think of something good, something she could
remember that wouldn’t make her afraid to remember.  Past
the cloud.  The white neck she saw….Beautiful skin.  The veins as she sits down.  Skin blue with veins.  Like marble. And talking now, mouth moving tightly.  Cheeks stretched.  Hair perfect. But the words lost in the roar, the huge stadium
sound in Billie’s ears as the cloud comes down, like smoke down the aisle, rolling across them, blotting the war memorial look of her mother in blinding quiet. (ibid, p. 234)(My underlining)

This long quotation shows not only Winton’s clever, unorthodox, post-modern verb usage to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity, but also his wonderful imaginative descriptive language.

The gap in the narrative, indeterminacy, is rarely temporal or spatial. Predominantly, it is textual – the reader, given snippets of information about the characters, must again actively participate with the text to decide who they are, where they fit in the story, and their psychological, psychical, or practical effect on Scully and his quests for Jennifer, an answer, and himself – a plurality of meanings.  An example of this gap, in the paragraphic chapter 38, describes a woman watching others in the Rue de Rivoli – presumably Jennifer watching Scully and Billie; or is it Irma, or Marianne, or Dominique?

She slips back into the bleak doorway to let them pass
blindly by without feeling the heat of her love.  She knows
where they are going.  She knows everything there is to
know about them …. she watches her life limp by … while
she decides how far to follow, wondering when enough is
enough, asking herself why it hurts to need so badly.(ibid, p. 271)

The reader is required to decide whether to believe that Jennifer, torn between being free to pursue her ambitions and her love for Billie and Scully, regretted her actions. At this stage in the narrative, reader response to Jennifer, based on individual experience and personal bias, influences hopes and desires for a successful ending to the quest.

Relying on reader’s foreknowledge of the ‘other’ text referred to, intertextuality occurs in this novel between the hunchback, Quasimodo, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Scully – both deformed physically, misunderstood because of it, yet kind with good hearts – marginalised figures brought to the centre of the narrative.  Billie, the medium for this link, recognized it herself as they travelled by boat from Greece to Italy:    “He was like the hunchback, Scully.  Not very pretty.   Sometimes he wasn’t very smart.  But his heart was good” (ibid, p. 210); and again in Amsterdam: “Billie saw him come out handcuffed and bellowing like the Hunchback on the Feast of Fools”. (ibid, p. 344)  Constant references are made throughout the text about Notre Dame, initially as a wonderful place from which you could see for miles, and where birds dwelt.  Gradually the references change. As Billie left Paris her romantic notions of Notre Dame disintegrated as she reflected on the city’s reality:

Paris was pretty on top and hollow underneath.  Under-
ground everyone was dirty and tired and lost.  They
weren’t going anywhere.  They were just waiting for the
Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, the whole town, to fall inon them. (ibid, p. 322)

While the language of Winton is evocative, with descriptions that stun, both metaphorically: “Night warped by.” (ibid, p. 235) and as truisms: “The sea sucked and grabbed and hissed and snatched” (ibid, p.188), the actions of his characters are excessive, surreal, a little incredible. There is a ‘soapie’ quality surrounding The Riders – the squeezing in of all possibilities into the one narrative which appears to be “perpetually in construction, perpetually contradictory, perpetually open to change” (Moss, 1992, p. 55) – unsettling to the reader as surreal art is to the viewer.  In other words, postmodern.

(C) Copyright Jud House  22/11/2005


Winton, Tim. (1994)  The Riders  Sydney: Pan Macmillan Aust. Pty Ltd.

Lewis, D. The constructedness of texts: Picture books and the metafictive.  In  Signal,  Vol 62, May 1990, pp. 131-146.

Moss, G. (1992)  Metafiction, illustration and the poetics of children’s literature.  In Hunt (ed.) Literature for children: contemporary criticism.   London: Routledge.


Bradford, Clare. The picture book: Some postmodern tensions.  In Papers: Explorations into children’s literature Vol 4(3) 1993, pp. 10-14.

Grieve, Ann. Postmodernism in picture books.  In Papers: Explorations into children’s literature  Vol 4(3)  1993, pp. 15-25

Mappin, A. (1990) Tim Winton. In Magpies No. 2

Parry, G. (1994)  Interview with Tim Winton. In Viewpoint, Vol 2, p.1.

Reddy, M. (1995)  The two lives of Tim Winton. In The Sunday Age’, March.

Matthews, B. (1993)  Childhood in Tim Winton’s fiction. In Rossiter & Jacobs (eds.) Reading Tim Winton, A & R Imprint, Sydney.

Taylor, Andrew. (1996) An Interview with Tim Winton. In ‘Notes and Documents’ in Australian Literary Studies  Vol 4, pp. 373 – 377.

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(C) Copyright Jud House 29/08/2011

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