Dark comedy reveals bitter subtext in rarefied world of writers
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.