From the sub­lime to the simian

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

As the chil­dren of the 1960s gen­er­a­tion have reached au­thor­hood, com­munes and cults have re­ceived in­creas­ing lit­er­ary at­ten­tion. The har­bin­ger is per­haps con­tro­ver­sial French au­thor Michel Houelle­becq, whose mother aban­doned him for a hip­pie life in Brazil when he was a boy, and who has been ex­act­ing lit­er­ary re­venge on the delu­sional 60s ever since. Other re­cent in­ter­na­tional nov­els to ex­plore the ter­rain in­clude Lau­ren Groff’s Ar­ca­dia and Emma Cline’s The Girls.

In Aus­tralia, too, the com­mune has loomed large in the cul­tural imag­i­na­tion: from north coast dreams of drop­ping out to the me­dia cov­er­age of court cases against cults such as Wil­liam Kamm’s (aka The Lit­tle Peb­ble) Or­der of St Char­bel or the prac­tices of Sci­en­tol­ogy or the Ex­clu­sive Brethren. Re­cent nov­els such as Vanessa Rus­sell’s Holy Bi­ble and Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm ex­plore this ter­ri­tory with aplomb.

Lili Wilkin­son’s The Bound­less Sub­lime (Allen & Un­win, 352pp, $19.99) is a fine ad­di­tion to this bur­geon­ing sub­genre. Wilkin­son has es­tab­lished a niche in young adult fic­tion with books pri­mar­ily aimed at a fe­male read­er­ship: The Not Quite Per­fect Boyfriend, Green Valen­tine and Love Shy. How­ever, The Bound­less Sub­lime may well at­tract a sig­nif­i­cantly broader au­di­ence.

Ruby, 17, is guilt-rid­den. She was too busy smok­ing cig­gies and flirt­ing with boys to pick up her lit­tle brother, An­ton, from soc­cer prac­tice as promised. Her fa­ther, who had been drink­ing, steps in and in do­ing so kills his son. The story be­gins with the af­ter­math: Dad in jail and full of self-loathing; Mum at home and un­able to cope; Ruby in a ric­tus of guilt and grief.

Her school friends are un­able to help her and it is only when she sees a beau­ti­ful boy hand­ing out free wa­ter that some­thing lifts in her. The boy is the dreamy Fox, who has grown up in­side a cult called The Bound­less Sub­lime, which is presided over by Zosi­mon or Daddy. Ruby is smit­ten by Fox and they start hang­ing out to­gether, first at the Red House, then in the more con­stric­tive en­vi­rons of the In­sti­tute

Zosi­mon has some strange ideas. He speaks from his past lives and calls him­self a sci­en­tist. The mem­bers of the cult are fed a range of vi­ta­min sup­ple­ments, while the wa­ter is laced with sul­phur. Wilkin­son holds us in sus­pense as to whether the Kool-Aid may be lurk­ing. In other re­spects, such as his one-on-one ses­sions with the cult’s fe­male mem­bers in the in­ner sanc­tum, Daddy is more pre­dictable but no less creepy.

Ruby is a fan­tas­tic pro­tag­o­nist and Wilkin­son deftly han­dles her tran­si­tion from grief-stricken scep­ti­cal teenager to blind devo­tee to scep­tic. This is one of those nov­els that adults and young adults alike can read for the plea­sure of the nar­ra­tive voice alone. Its psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sights and fast-paced drama make for a thrilling and im­mer­sive read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and if I knew what to do with a cam­era, I’d be think­ing se­ri­ously about the movie rights.

Rose Mul­ready’s The Bonobo’s Dream (Seizure, 202pp, $14.95) is one of two win­ners of Seizure’s Viva La Novella Prize, which has been run­ning since 2012. Mel­bourne-based Mul­ready, whose day job con­sists of writ­ing con­tent for the Aus­tralian Bal­let, has come up with a spec­u­la­tive fic­tion that daz­zles with mis­chievous sur­re­al­ism.

Aquila is a cel­e­brated artist who lives in a de­signer bub­ble with his wife Suzanne and son James. Their house is beau­ti­ful and ev­ery­thing is au­to­mated, even the cook­ing of meals. Yet be­neath the highly aes­theti­cised sur­faces of their ex­is­tence, un­hap­pi­ness lurks. James’s cere­bral palsy is pla­cated by drugs; Aquila has a tem­pes­tu­ous mis­tress in the city; Suzanne has to deal with be­ing the wife of an old-school male art star (in the tra­di­tion of Diego Riviera).

The early part of the novella is or­gan­ised around a birth­day din­ner Aquila and Suzanne are hold­ing for the older daugh­ter, Char­ity, who no longer lives at home, and her new boyfriend. Ev­ery­one is on eggshells. Char­ity is a kind of glad­i­a­tor and the drugs they keep her on to en­hance her per­for­mance make her prone to er­ratic be­hav­iour and fits of rage. Here Mul­ready plays clev­erly with the dystopian premise of The Hunger Games, but Char­ity’s be­hav­iour makes you think about footy play­ers and the like as well.

On a visit to his mis­tress, Aquila pro­cures the in­gre­di­ents to hand-make an ac­tual cake, which Char­ity has been promised. When she ar­rives, the fam­ily is shocked to dis­cover that her boyfriend, Ed­ward, is a simu­lian, pri­mar­ily con­sti­tuted from bonobo genes, with a bit of go­rilla and hu­man added in. He has been in­stalled by the com­pany that spon­sors Char­ity to keep her on the level dur­ing the fight­ing sea­son.

Suf­fice it to say the party goes pear shaped, the home dome is re­duced to green gloop, and the fam­ily and Ed­ward are forced to nav­i­gate some dif­fi­cult ter­rain in the search for a sanc­tu­ary from the out­side world. Mul­ready shows wit and at­ten­tion to de­tail in the build­ing of this world. The tone is play­ful and sur­real, but there’s an edge to it too. Her satire is sug­ges­tive rather than skew­er­ing; the way her story maps on to re­al­ity is de­lib­er­ately in­ex­act.

As a spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, this is an un­likely world rather than some­thing to be ex­pected. And while the end­ing oc­curs in a bit of a rush, the high­lights of this sparkling ad­ven­ture into con­cep­tual mis­chief have al­ready oc­curred.

While Mul­ready’s sur­re­al­ism dab­bles in the fu­ture, Mau­rilia Mee­han’s lat­est work of satire, her sixth novel, 5 Ways to be Fa­mous Now (Tran­sit Lounge, 190pp, $27.99), is a pas­tiche of mod­ern life that pri­mar­ily oc­curs on a cruise ship.

An ar­son­ist work­ing in a li­brary be­friends the charis­matic al­pha fe­male, Cap­tain Kirstin McKin­ley, a wealthy life­style en­tre­pre­neur. Be­fore long he has be­come her right-hand man and en­forcer on a cruise to the Antarc­tic.

The novel fea­tures four key pas­sen­gers: jour­nal­ist Lily Zelin­ski, on the hunt for a scoop; au­thor Mon­ica Fre­quen, whose lit­er­ary ca­reer is on the skids; Adri­ana Jones, an ex­treme acolyte of Princess Diana with the cos­metic surgery to prove it, and Shanti Bounty, a yoga teacher. They are mid­dle-aged women liv­ing out the con­se­quences of a world that has tight­ened since the chaotic largesse of the 80s.

All of these women are con­nected, and when one of them dies on board we en­ter a bizarre hy­brid of cruise ship cul­ture and coun­try house de­tec­tive novel. It is strate­gic satire as op­posed to the tac­ti­cal satire found on TV skit shows.

Mee­han ex­cels in pulling con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety to pieces and re­assem­bling it in odd com­bi­na­tions. But over­ar­ch­ing this, as the ti­tle sug­gests, is the idea of fame and a mis­chievous ex­plo­ration of the va­ri­ety of ways peo­ple try to achieve it.

The ar­son­ist aside, this is pri­mar­ily a com­edy about women and their in­ter­re­la­tion­ships, the cor­ro­sion of am­bi­tion, and the reck­on­ings to be made be­tween an­tic­i­pated and older selves. This all oc­curs against a mad back­drop of a cruise ship that of­fers a vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ence of cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the world.

Mee­han’s ex­plo­ration of the col­lec­tive folly of our fame-ob­sessed zeit­geist is fun but its ex­am­i­na­tion of what we value, and the sly sug­ges­tion that some things we think are op­pos­ing forces may be two sides of the same coin, are pointed.

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