Fam­ily mud­dles through as life falls apart

The Full Ridicu­lous

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­trick Alling­ton Pa­trick Alling­ton’s

By Mark Lam­prell Text Pub­lish­ing, 245pp, $29.99

MARK Lam­prell’s de­but novel The Full Ridicu­lous is the story of Michael O’Dell — hus­band, fa­ther, film critic — and his very bad year. It hov­ers in a slightly stylised, nearly but not quite real world in which peo­ple, events, the universe and even Michael’s own mind and body gang up on him.

Michael’s des­per­a­tion is com­i­cal but the novel stops short of full-blown satire: he in­hab­its a per­plex­ing world, a vin­dic­tive world, an un­just world, but it’s not quite hell.

While Lam­prell is a first-time nov­el­ist, he has pedi­gree as a sto­ry­teller in film. He cowrote Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and wrote and di­rected the fea­ture film My Mother Frank (2000). Most re­cently, he co-wrote and di­rected the am­bi­tious and ex­u­ber­ant if un­even film mu­si­cal God­dess, about a woman find­ing fame as a singer via her we­b­cam.

In The Full Ridicu­lous, Lam­prell uses a sec­ond-per­son nar­ra­tive to tell Michael’s tale: ‘‘ You try to say wa­ter but your lips stick to­gether’’; ‘‘ You look around the room and try to think what a nor­mal, high-func­tion­ing fa­ther would do in th­ese cir­cum­stances’’; ‘‘ Your wife is a hero and you know that you should stop and give thanks but all you feel is shame.’’

For the first 10 pages or so this nar­ra­tive style comes across as clunky. But a rhythm quickly es­tab­lishes it­self, and an in­ti­macy too, as if the nar­ra­tor is of­fer­ing the reader the chance to bond with Michael. And as a bonus, the nar­ra­tive per­sis­tently — for me, at least — evokes the great Talk­ing Heads song Once in a Life­time (‘‘And you may find your­self in a beau­ti­ful house, with a beau­ti­ful wife /And you may ask your­self / Well . . . How did I get here?’’).

Al­though

the

sec­ond-per­son

nar­ra­tive mostly suc­ceeds (af­ter the ini­tial hic­cups), there are pe­ri­odic, and usu­ally brief, mo­ments when it slips into sur­plus ex­pla­na­tion of Michael’s emo­tional state.

The Full Ridicu­lous be­gins with an ac­ci­dent: a car hits Michael. Al­though his in­juries aren’t life-threat­en­ing, the in­ci­dent serves as the spark for his life to spin out of con­trol.

Hav­ing left his job as a news­pa­per film critic, he can­not seem to fin­ish the book he sup­pos­edly is writ­ing. Mort­gages pile up. His daugh­ter gets into a fight at school, the con­se­quences of which re­ver­ber­ate for months (not al­ways com­pletely con­vinc­ingly). He finds drugs in his son’s room. He’s sink­ing fast, leav­ing his wife to pick up the slack as well as look af­ter him.

All the prob­lems that pile up — some real, some imag­i­nary, some a bit of both — seem mag­ni­fied by Michael’s wrought state. Even when some­thing bad hap­pens to some­body else, he fil­ters it through a prism of his own suf­fer­ing. While such self-ab­sorp­tion has weary­ing patches, Lam­prell has cre­ated a char­ac­ter pos­sessed of just enough selfaware­ness and self-dep­re­ca­tion to earn and main­tain sym­pa­thy.

Lam­prell re­lies on some fan­ci­ful scenes and plot de­vel­op­ments to keep the story mov­ing, in­clud­ing a se­ries of events in­volv­ing a du­bi­ous cop­per who is too car­i­ca­tured to take very se­ri­ously. One of the book’s broader themes, that cer­tain groups in so­ci­ety face un­fair tar­get­ing on a rou­tine ba­sis is, while true, a lit­tle heavy-handed: ‘‘ What must it be like to be poor, black, with lit­tle ed­u­ca­tion or op­por­tu­nity?’’

Still, there are some con­tem­po­rary so­cial is­sues neatly woven into the story. Lam­prell is par­tic­u­larly ab­sorb­ing on the sub­ject of the bur­dens high school stu­dents and their par­ents face, not only al­copops and bongs but also the weighty pres­sure of get­ting great marks and, most es­pe­cially, the pol­i­tics of elite schools. His teenage char­ac­ters are ter­rif­i­cally com­plex, es­pe­cially Michael’s daugh­ter Rosie, whose thought pro­cesses arc from tod­dler-like to wise.

Lam­prell also delves into is­sues sur­round­ing the life­long con­se­quences of adop­tion. Oc­ca­sion­ally, this has a tacked-on feel: one scene in­volv­ing Michael and a psy­chi­a­trist comes across like the ar­ti­fi­cial solv­ing of a jig­saw puz­zle. But at other times the ob­ser­va­tions are per­cep­tive and deeply thought­ful. One short chap­ter that cap­tures a mon­tage of mo­ments in Michael’s life is gor­geous and heart­felt, one of the novel’s high points.

The Full Ridicu­lous is a por­trait of in­di­vid­ual cri­sis and fam­ily dys­func­tion­al­ity. But al­though Michael’s fam­ily is on the edge, their col­lec­tive sit­u­a­tion never de­gen­er­ates into the bru­tally satir­i­cal world of, say, the Joy fam­ily in Peter Carey’s Bliss. Al­though the story hov­ers on the cusp of se­ri­ously dark ter­ri­tory, Lam­prell chooses a gen­tler path, one closer to Graeme Sim­sion’s highly suc­cess­ful re­cent comic novel, The Rosie Project.

Ul­ti­mately, The Full Ridicu­lous is a about a fam­ily’s love and dura­bil­ity.

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