Sam Cooney

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

If noth­ing else, one thing guar­an­teed in any Wayne Ma­cauley work of fic­tion is that its sur­face is just that: a ve­hi­cle in­side of which the real mes­sages are car­ried. What makes Ma­cauley’s nov­els ex­cep­tional is th­ese mes­sages are al­ways vi­tal — they are the mes­sages we’ve been ask­ing our­selves for mil­len­nia, in one way or an­other — but also the sur­face story-ve­hi­cle that car­ries th­ese mes­sages is com­pelling in its own right.

Think of The Cook, a tragic tale of a bud­ding chef gone full feral, or Car­a­van Story, with its ghet­toised artists just wait­ing for so­ci­ety to ac­cept them, or the hope­lessly hope­ful fron­tiers­peo­ple in Blue­print for a Barbed-Wire Ca­noe try­ing to build a com­mu­nity against all odds.

His new novel, Some Tests, is osten­si­bly the ac­count of one woman’s jour­ney through the labyrinth of mod­ern med­i­cal care. It takes place in a sur­real subur­ban and then ru­ral set­ting where vague spe­cial­ists con­tinue to re­fer her on, and on again, and on again, with­out re­veal­ing what is go­ing on or even what may be wrong with her. This book is con­cerned with the in­evitable loss that results from as­sum­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for any­one’s life, es­pe­cially your own.

All of Ma­cauley’s crit­i­cally un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated nov­els are of­ten and largely about the bat­tle of a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual against the ab­so­lute im­pos­si­bil­ity of try­ing to take con­trol of life. In Some Tests we are con­tin­u­ally re­minded that the mod­ern world of end­less choice is one gi­ant il­lu­sion. Em­brac­ing th­ese seem­ing choices, see­ing them as a kind of sal­va­tion, is in fact just climb­ing into mo­ment-to-mo­ment im­pris­on­ment, mak­ing it easier for the jailer — that is, your­self.

The med­i­cal tests in the novel — the med­i­cal tests we all know, the ones read­ily avail­able to us when­ever we may feel askew — act as an al­le­gory for the ques­tions of ex­is­tence, the tests of spir­i­tu­al­ity, of science, of phi­los­o­phy. “The tests avail­able th­ese days are in­fi­nite and it is rea­son­able to ex­pect that a per­son in your sit­u­a­tion … will take up our of­fer of more, cling­ing per­haps to the hope that the next will pro­vide the an­swers.”

One of the many doc­tors en­coun­tered puts it thus: “If no com­fort is found in the next test, or the one af­ter, how far do we go? To in­fin­ity?”

This same doc­tor, whose name is Pan­chal but we can call him Ma­cauley, asks us di­rectly: “How far do we go? When do we stop? The more faults we look for, the more we find. De­cid­ing whether to have one more test and hold to the slim pos­si­bil­ity of an answer — this is a prob­lem that has grown ex­po­nen­tially with the many tests now avail­able to us.”

If there’s a test re­ally worth tak­ing, a choice re­ally worth mak­ing, it’s to read Some Tests, and all of Ma­cauley’s writ­ing, and see where you end up.

Steven Lang’s Hin­ter­land has much in com­mon with Ma­cauley’s pre­vi­ous novel, Demons, which also hosts a bunch of var­i­ously im­moral adults we are forced us to watch in real time as they pon­tif­i­cate, bicker and flirt. And Hin­ter­land, like all Aus­tralian nov­els of its ilk, is draw­ing easy, al­beit wrong, com­par­isons with Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s The Slap, sim­ply be­cause of Some Tests By Wayne Ma­cauley Text Pub­lish­ing, 256pp, $29.99 Hin­ter­land By Steven Lang UQP, 346pp, $29.95 Dat­sun­land By Stephen Orr Wake­field Press, 312pp, $29.95

Dat­suns are ‘just like Wil­liam and Char­lie: plain­look­ing cars that just keep go­ing’, Stephen Orr has said of the char­ac­ters in his lat­est work, Dat­sun­land

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