Family muddles through as life falls apart
The Full Ridiculous
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?’’).
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.