Why did I decide to read three books by male Australian writers over the last two weeks?
I should have known what I was in for. As John Freeman said in his review of Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole in the New York Times, ‘Australia where the badgering first person runs deep…’ And may I add the badgering male voice?
The books were:
Amnesia by Peter Carey
The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
Let me give a brief overview of each and leave you to decide if I have overreacted.
Amnesia is set in Australia as half of Carey’s novels seem to be. The first half of the book is in the voice of Felix Moore, a drunken and disgraced journalist, a kind of journalistic version of Rake (the hero of a very popular TV show in Australia about a sleazy barrister.) A man ruined by drink (not by women in this case) but one of the last true believers. He has lost a court case, his books have been withdrawn. He has ruined his family life, but he is still supported by Woody Townes, left wing millionaire property developer. Carey and his character are still hurting from the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, and still carrying a load of hatred and distrust for America.
Now the key plot point: Felix is offered loads of cash to write a life of Gaby Bailleux, a young woman who has just released the Angel (Internet)Worm which has had devastating effects on American and Australian security. The premise is that if Felix can rush through a captivatingly sympathetic story of Gaby’s life this will gain her the support of the Australian people and somehow prevent her from being extradited to America to pay the ultimate price for her crime. Beside lots of dollars, the hook is that Felix was infatuated with Celine, Gaby’s mother, when they were at university. This leads to some nice stuff about Monash University when it was a sea of mud, and life in Carlton in the 70’s. But I’m afraid it doesn’t all add up. The details of Gaby’s life growing up, the ins and out of her mother’s love life (she seem to have become a famous actress on the strength of doing some successful advertising shots), don’t make us bond with the characters. After page 50 it all becomes a bit dreary.
And in the end it’s all quite confusing. Why is Felix kidnapped? Whose side is Woody on? Why does Woody end up dead? And how is that Felix is reunited with his wife as Gaby and her accomplice make their escape with not too many repercussions for Felix?
The Wonder Lover is about a dreary little man who is described as an Authenticator of unbelievable facts. This leads him to tell deeply boring bedtime stories full of facts and numbers. I disliked this book quite a lot: the stiff prose, the unbelievable premise that this grey man has the hidden magnetic power to run three families with wives who are all in love with him, and the fact that he is required to authenticate the most beautiful woman in the world thus falling in love with her and upsetting the applecart of his other three families who all know nothing about one another. Oh, and the story is written in the voice of all the children, that is, six children who are called either Adam or Eve. The book tells stories about the lives of the characters, but there was no way I could get into those stories; they were opaque surfaces, and I wasn’t all that interested anyway.
I tried to like this book but I just couldn’t. And more’s the pity as it was given to me by the dear friend (male) who also gave me Anthony O’Neill’s wonderful crime caper The Unscratchables, written in the voice of a dog who is ‘the police force’s most fearless detective, a barrel-chested bull terrier with a biscuit-thin temper and a barbed wire tongue.’
A Fraction of the Whole I didn’t hate. At times I even laughed, but it was like being in a cell with a very verbose man who raves and harangues until you are at screaming point. Again I should have known when it was compared to Confederacy of Dunces, which is another rave. I think of them as books by clever boys who have spent far too long living with their mothers and staying in their bedrooms reading and watching movies. There’s just too much there. All those ‘crazee’ ideas they’ve never been able to communicate to anyone else. I liked the beginning with little Martin in his coma, and brother Terry becoming a besotted and talented sportsman, but when Terry is injured and Martin makes his connection with convicted criminal Harry West it’s all down hill. Like the Town Suggestion box it’s funny for a while, but it all goes on far too long. Only 530 pages, but the print was small and in the end I had to resort to skimming so I didn’t die before I finished reading it.
Give me Max McNash, dog detective, every time.
(I’m having trouble today putting up the links to the photos- the photos themselves keep coming up instead of the links. My apologies to the owners of the images. They’re both on flickr.com and the numbers are 12917962@NO0/2242032324 and 85627904@NO7/8597745629. And yes, that’s meant to be a badger the bloke is holding.)