Ghosts in the Machine: Modernity and the Unmodern in Gail Jones's <em>Dreams of Speaking</em>


  • Robert Dixon University of Sydney


Gail Jones


Gail Jones’s first three novels deal with Australians who travel or live abroad and engage with aspects of modern global culture. In Black Mirror (2002), an Australian artist moves to Paris in the 1930s and becomes part of the surrealist movement; years later, another Australian woman, an art historian, follows her to Europe to research her biography. Sixty Lights (2004) begins in Australia but the action soon moves to London and then to India, thereby locating Australia within the international landscape of the late nineteenth-century British world. In Dreams of Speaking (2006), an Australian academic, Alice Black, travels from Perth to Paris to research a book on ‘the poetics of modernity’. She there meets an elderly Japanese man, Mr Sakamoto, who is also interested in modernity and its technologies, and who is writing a biography of Alexander Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Alice’s project begins as a theoretical enterprise, as she sets out to understand the operations of global modernity and the nature of modern time and space. Yet in the opening pages of the novel, after her return from Paris, her manuscript lies abandoned on her desk like ‘something dead and unconnected’ (6). In this paper, I examine how her meeting with Mr Sakamoto and her grief for his death cause her to abandon that initial project for one of a different kind, which involves her telling the story of their friendship. Alice’s recognition that modernity is haunted by the persistence of the unmodern, especially death and mourning, transforms her poetics of modernity into a meditation on the ethics of friendship.

Author Biography

Robert Dixon, University of Sydney

Professor of Australian literature University of Sydney