From the sublime to the simian
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.