char­ac­ters and plot

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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