characters and plot
key to a juicy, voyeuristic biography, is whispered into a tape recorder.
The Biographer is 62- year- old scriptwriter Virginia Duigan’s second novel, following Days Like These ( 2001). Duigan is the sister of filmmaker John Duigan and the wife of director Bruce Beresford.
There’s no problem populating a novel with a few characters from central casting, but The Biographer has only a half- dozen to play with. It’s crippled from the off. Mischa is the archetypal obsessive artist, heedless of all around him: big, smelly, virile, noisy, impractical and driven. Rollo is the wise old queen and Guy the younger Mr Fixit. Greer is Mischa’s versatile PA. Charlie was the unimpeachable, perfect husband. Josie, Greer’s ideal homebody sister, counterpoints Greer’s waywardness. Bohemia and suburbia. Turps and Pine O Cleen. Eerily reminiscent of the birth of Barry Humphries.
As if this cardboard symmetry weren’t obvious enough, we are subjected to endless repetition of each person’s characteristics. There’s arch, campy banter between Rollo and Guy; Mischa ceaselessly generates Great Art and autistic insensitivity; the saintly Charlie and Josie are recanonised at every opportunity; Anthony the invader is impeccable and sly. Only Greer has the makings of a rounded character, but we are tiresomely reminded that she is a woman with secrets. The style, likewise, is subverted by excessive literalness spawned by repetition, as in ‘‘ self- consciously sharing a Gauloise, like leading actors in a noir film’’ and ‘‘ his emotion had a direct conduit to his actions’’. Or worse: ‘‘ The scarlet blaze of passion . . . versus the dun colours of duty and responsibility’’. And Tony’s monologues are full of clangers: Americans don’t use Stanley knives, nor do they ‘‘ arse around’’ or get ‘‘ legless’’ at any hour, least of all at ‘‘ half one’’.
Just what was the cataclysm that caused Greer to jump off the precipice in 1979? Can this enigma hold the reader’s attention until the revelatory ending? Alas, no. We’re not far into the book when the cataclysm becomes obvious ( to use that word again). Not because the author chooses to reveal it but because the simplicity of the characters and their situation makes it inevitable. The dramatic tension ebbs away.
‘‘ We are all trapped in our own stories,’’ says Greer, inadvertently summing up the author’s predicament. Duigan is hamstrung by the simplistic mechanics of her own novel. It’s a shame, as biography deserves interrogation.