Dark com­edy re­veals bit­ter sub­text in rar­efied world of writ­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Christo­pher Bantick

MICHAEL Wild­ing has form. Even a cur­sory glance at his prodi­gious back­list sug­gests here is a writer who is well ex­pe­ri­enced in the changes and chances of the Aus­tralian lit­er­ary com­mu­nity. It is the pos­tur­ing of writ­ers, fleet­ing fame and their sav­age turn­ing on one an­other that Wild­ing ex­plores in this black com­edy. But while the novel is witty and gen­uinely funny, there is an acer­bic sub­text.

Still, as much as Na­tional Trea­sure is a bit of a David Lodge- like spoof on the overt se­ri­ous­ness of self- im­por­tant writ­ers, Wild­ing makes us smile as he pricks egos and turns the knife on ques­tion­able rep­u­ta­tions.

The novel be­gins with a chance mug­ging of Ful­lalove, the re­search as­sis­tant for Scobie Spruce, a writer who has hordes of lit­er­ary luvvies snap­ping up his latest best­seller and puff­ing his profile. Sound familiar? Well, as I said, Wild­ing has form.

The truth of the book is that al­though Wild­ing has ex­er­cised to the full his comic reper­toire of over- the- top char­ac­ters and clever plots, there is an un­com­fort­able sense this is writ­ten by an in­sider with more than a few axes to grind.

Ful­lalove no longer wants to work for Scobie and into the nar­ra­tive comes Keith Plant. He is duly em­ployed by Scobie and it is through Plant that the story is told.

Plant is not ex­actly naive but he ob­serves the ut­ter du­plic­ity of Scobie and his part­ner, Clau­dia. Both are com­plicit in main­tain­ing Scobie’s phony ac­claim. Even though Clau­dia at­tempts to keep Scobie, her meal ticket, on the straight and nar­row, he breaks out and goes on a co­caine ben­der for a week with a wheedling but none­the­less sexy junkie, Nada.

While the plot os­cil­lates around how Scobie is a fraud with min­i­mal tal­ent who ex­ploits Plant to the point that he takes over Scobie’s fiction and mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle com­mis­sions, the novel has a much darker pur­pose.

This is to ex­pose the craven, ma­nip­u­la­tive na­ture of the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment. The mes­sage is un­am­bigu­ous: Scobie and writ­ers like him are not in­ter­ested in art but in the main­te­nance of the fan­tasy of their own sig­nif­i­cance.

Wild­ing demon­strates with bru­tal clar­ity how writ­ers and pub­lish­ers are in ca­hoots to keep mid­dling work in the hands of the pub­lic be­cause this re­sults in healthy bal­ance sheets.

Cor­rupt and self- serv­ing as Wild­ing por­trays the lit­er­ary com­mu­nity, we laugh over Clau­dia mas­sag­ing Scobie’s con­sid­er­able ego by say­ing

that in a sta­tus so­ci­ety, ‘‘ Nov­el­ists should be at the top.’’ Scobie’s re­sponse, we re­alise, is not a joke: ‘‘ ‘ We are,’ said Scobie. ‘ We are the pin­na­cle . . . The na­tion’s trea­sures. The Ark of the Covenant. We are the stars. They need us to look up to.’ ’’

Any punter who vis­its a writ­ers fes­ti­val will at some point find a writer who be­lieves their own pub­lic­ity and con­sid­ers they are in­deed a rar­efied be­ing de­serv­ing of un­fet­tered praise.

Wild­ing’s quiver is full of barbs and he spares no one. Scobie’s jeal­ousy to­wards a com­pet­ing writer is pal­pa­ble and Bent­ley, his English pub­lisher, is a prissy fusspot who tol­er­ates pill- pop­ping Scobie’s de­bauch­ery and gets off with Nada. Scobie beds Clau­dia’s mother.

Af­ter shred­ding the cred­i­bil­ity of writ­ers with foren­sic at­ten­tive­ness, Wild­ing’s evo­ca­tion of a lit­er­ary lunch is mas­ter­ful and cru­elly ac­cu­rate. Scobie’s dis­as­trous per­for­mance brings to mind the de­cline of Dixon in Kings­ley Amis’s Lucky Jim. But when Scobie an­nounces that he is partA­bo­rig­i­nal, Wild­ing be­comes play­ful with what few rem­nants re­main of Scobie’s failed life.

This is a novel that slaughters the sa­cred cows of Aus­tralian lit­er­ary cul­ture. It does so with more the eye of pity but with just as many cuts as Mark Davis’s Gang­land. Wild­ing’s zesty writ­ing and sheer fun with his sub­ject makes for a divert­ing read. But don’t be conned. This is fiction with more truth than lies.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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