Thrilling journey of self- discovery
TRANSIT Lounge is one of the more interesting independent presses operating in Melbourne. Since 2003 it has published a small, eclectic list of literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, mostly concerned with travel to exotic places and the junctions between East and West.
To date, Transit’s fiction list has comprised Liz Gallois’s beautifully evocative story collection, India Vik . The Asking Game is Transit’s first novel. It’s an impressive start.
Rose Michael’s debut novel, launched at the 2007 Sydney Writers Festival, is no tentative beginner’s piece. I first read an earlier draft when it was commended in The Australian - Vogel Literary Award in 2002 and was impressed then by its sophisticated take on big issues and the narrative drive that came from its melding of the psychological thriller with speculative fiction.
While not short on literary allusion, it had a less studied literary sensibility than many first novels by young writers. The Asking Game is a bold, ambitious work that takes risks and, for the most part, pulls them off.
The year is 2020 and Alice ( aka Eve) is being watched. When she enters the virtual world of the Grand Pacific Blue Room, the avatar who goes by the name of Drew may or may not be the same young man who lives in the flat upstairs, who Alice suspects is spying on her. When he asks her to embark on a journey in search of the true meaning of Eternity, Alice suspects a link with her older sister Lucy, whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years.
Although their relationship is fraught, Alice nonetheless feels tied to Lucy in ways that are usually the preserve of twins. She lives a secondhand childhood of phantom memories and rediscovery rather than discovery, recalling things she hasn’t done, as though Lucy has passed her experiences on to her. When Lucy
abandons her, the strain of separation is exacerbated by a second- child syndrome of monumental proportions.
The search for Eternity takes Alice and Drew on a dream- like road trip through the deserts of Western Australia to the ghost- town of Edith, where Alice and Lucy spent their childhood. Although no trace of Eternity — a millenarian sect that flourished there during the 1990s — can be found in online records or archives, the abandoned mission on the town’s outskirts still has secrets to reveal about what went on there under the charismatic Reverend Mitchell.
Fuelled by apocalyptic paranoia about climate change and lured by the myth of eternal life, a band of followers sought salvation through science, cultivating genetically modified crops and spawning perfect herds in a bid to guarantee their future.
But Eternity was also a front for something of far greater significance. Cells and genetic mis- takes accumulate. Clones inherit age. What else may be inherited? More important, what is it that makes us who we are? Michael lets the consequences of her characters’ actions unfold and relies on her skill as a storyteller to ask the necessary questions.
These are not new questions. Nor is Michael the first to explore them through speculative fiction, though her melding of multiple genres brings a new perspective to them. The literary precursor to The Asking Game is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Michael shows she can turn her hand to the trappings of romantic gothic horror when the need arises. There is a scene late in the novel involving pickling jars and unspeakable things in formaldehyde that will make your flesh crawl.
There are also recurring references throughout the novel to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland that bring a different dimension to the novel and work to varying effect. While they license Michael to explore the seemingly absurd otherworld that Alice enters through various portals ( computer screens replace mirrors), they often seem laboured and shift the focus from the story to ideas that need to be spelled out too clearly. Unfortunately, they also bring the film The Matrix to mind when the reader should be focusing on the originality of Michael’s vision. But this is a minor concern, given the overall achievement of the novel. It is a stylish, sophisticated thriller that is not afraid to take on the big, universal issues.
Alice’s quest for her fugitive past and for a possible reconciliation with Lucy works marvellously as a personal story of self- discovery while engaging with the public debate that necessarily follows in the wake of scientific advancement. Liam Davison’s novels include Soundings and The White Woman.