Too Much Lip joins the other prizewinning volumes in Melissa Lucashenko’s trophy cabinet. Her first-ever novel, Steam Pigs (1997), was shortlisted for or won several major prizes, and in the past two decades her books have racked up 26 awards.
Today’s win confirms her status as one of Australia’s top writers of contemporary fiction. Lucashenko has a marvellous knack of crafting fictions that are both drenched in anger, dysfunction and tragedy, and woven through with laugh-out-loud funny scenes, and relationships of great tenderness – with people and other living beings, and with the country in which they live.
This latest volume is a brilliant addition to her oeuvre. A sustained story about a highly dysfunctional and traumatised family, its chief focus is on Kerry, the sister and daughter who has returned home. It is a home summed up by brother Ken as “a fucking coma ward”.
Pop in bed with the remote welded to the nags. Mum sits doing her cards and reading about the Second Coming of Christ our Lord, and I’m just about ready to harvest [son] Danny for his organs if the useless prick doesn’t move his arse soon. Talk about Limpet Dreaming.
Kerry laughs in response, largely to placate her labile brother; but for her it is not a joyful return. Not only is she here to say goodbye to her dying grandfather, but she is still wounded from the recent loss of her girlfriend Allie, who has been imprisoned for armed robbery, and has ended their relationship. Adding to disaster, Kerry and her family discover plans to develop a sacred site – and not just develop it, but actually build a prison on it.
In an interview about Too Much Lip, Lucashenko says: “I discovered that I was writing hidden history without being aware of how close to home I was. If you stick at it long enough you will eventually discover that you were writing truth where you thought you were writing fiction.”
This novel seems to respond to Emily Dickinson’s famous axiom about creative writing: Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.
Too Much Lip is a performance of truth told slant, the actuality of life and of embodied history wrapped within a work of fiction that comes alive in the characters and events that fill its pages; thrumming with life.
But it is more than a story. Lucashenko’s work is a powerful response to the entrenched racism that still shapes Australian culture; to the public and official turning away from the brutalities and genocide on which this nation was built, or the violence and inequities that characterise contemporary society.
Kerry’s Pop says to her: “We livin’ in the whiteman’s world now. You remember that”, but like Kerry, Lucashenko refuses to be silenced.
In her fictions and public life she makes visible the vibrancy and resilience of Aboriginal communities and their continued connection to land and culture. At the same time she makes agonisingly clear the unhealed wounds of Australian culture, in writing that demands these wounds be addressed.
I think it’s fair to say that each year the selected novels on the Miles Franklin shortlist manifest the zeitgeist, reflecting on some of the issues that are troubling society.
This year they take on and inflect some signature themes: racial/cultural relationships; human engagement with the natural world; and, threading through each novel, the problem of mourning – for lost loves, for the ruins of the past, for uncertain futures, for a hurt planet.
A Sand Archive
Gregory Day’s A Sand Archive starts with an introduction to engineer and dreamer FB, and his “cheaply printed” volume, The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties.
It is an introduction full of evocative images, and FB’s quaint and archaic self-presentation against a backdrop of shadows, sand and heath lets readers know with whom they will be travelling during the course of this novel. It establishes the voice of the novel, one marked by a lyrical flow, combining something not explicitly lyrical (Dune Stabilisation; Engineering Difficulties) with a poetic tone, and with a philosophical treatise on sand.
FB is studying “the ontology of dunes”, and discovering the uncertainty of a world built on sand. The narrator, like FB, is a polymath, and like FB is sequestered in regional Victoria. Thanks to the magic of publications and imaginations, both are able to range widely through history and cultures.
But FB has been knocked about by life: by his hopeless love for French activist Mathilde, his thwarted desire to arrest the degradation of south Victoria’s sand dunes, and the loneliness (and satisfactions) of the life he builds. This is a tender novel, and one in which sand becomes a metaphor for story, for the human heart, for how to keep living through “the absurdity of human endeavours”.
Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills’ latest novel, to some extent fits the clifi genre, but its brilliant exposition of time and its instabilities is perhaps the stronger driving force in this narrative.
Sam, the central character, suffers from migraines that come with the dubious gift of knowing the future. For Sam, who is thus captured by dyschronia, the future is not necessarily future. She lives in a jumble of tenses, and though her mother tries to instruct her in linearity – “Time’s like a road, see?” – she never escapes the “dys” of “chronos”.
For her, time is like Einstein’s river, one that flows randomly, separates, folds back on itself. The novel also offers a scathing interrogation of economic “development”. The local environment and the lives of the people living in Clapstone are ruined in the interests of corporate greed. The asphalt plant on which the town was established has closed, leaving behind a poisoned town and a wrecked environment.
Sam has lost herself, aware that her knowledge of the future will change nothing, that “the whole weak joke of order is unravelling”. But there is still a touch of hope in all this, a lovely contrast between the hopelessness of the situation and the irrepressibility of the locals, who determinedly ignore the end of their world. And, at the end, “laughter comes unbidden, like a gas bubbling up through water”.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs begins in the quasi-prison environment of Punchbowl Boys High, and all the violence and crassness of a community of sex segregated adolescents, boys whose present and probable future involves being derided and excluded. This makes it sound grim, but in fact it is often a very funny novel.
The narrator, Bani Adam, is a misfit at school and outside, and his performances and protestations of himself as intellectual, sophisticated, open-minded yet still devout, make for humour, albeit of a poignant, plaintive kind.
Bani also delivers an education in Muslim faith and its complexities; and illuminates the effect of a brutalising culture through an insider’s eye on the politics of being Muslim in an unwelcoming Australian context. Still, I found the unrelenting racism, the constant lateral violence, the easy homophobia and the sexualised representation of girls and women not sufficiently outweighed by the wit and literary skill that mark this novel. “That’s the problem at Punchbowl Boys”, says Bani, “even if you win, you lose”.
The Death of Noah Glass
In The Death of Noah Glass, Gail Jones takes on a topic she has often explored: the creative world, one in which the eponymous Noah and his son Martin attempt to reconcile image and text, creativity and identity. It splendidly maps the world of art while offering beautiful portraits of mourning. Martin and his sister Evie have lost both parents now, and the impact of those deaths sets up a tremor that runs through the narrative.
Evie remembers “searching the rooms of their cold house” for her mother, “listening to her own breathing, the barest rhythm, in case stillness might summon her mother back”. And with their father’s sudden death being followed by the news of his possible involvement in art theft, there is “the wider mystery of things”, the impossibility of dealing with this slur on his reputation “when he was still inside them and not yet resting in peace”.
How the dead remain inside us; how memory and its regrets keep banging away at us (Noah in particular has much to regret); how the patterns of the world and of society shape and contain us; how parenthood, family, and sensory being allow us to live: these reappear throughout the novel, animating its characters.
Too Much Lip
Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip takes us to regional Australia, introducing readers to an Aboriginal family living on country, and tracing the threads of settler violence that continue to harm the current generation. The story starts in 1943, with now-patriarch Owen Addison being brutalised so that: “When Owen died … there were seven decades of agony caged in him”.
Kerry Salter is returning home to see Owen, her damaged dying Pop, and she literally blasts into town, the “skinniest dark girl on a shiny new Softail, heart attack city, truesgod”, startling the “whitenormalsavages” at the corner store.
She is witty, sharp, tricky, compassionate, but like her siblings suffers intergenerational trauma, which emerges as pretty appalling sibling abuse, and inevitable tragedy. Her uncle manages to divert the worst possible ending to the story, telling her armed and desperate brother: “Terrible things happened in his [Owen’s] life … Some of that pain had to go somewhere. There’s no shame to you in it, my nephew. It wasn’t your fault.”
While the themes of the novel are tragic and often deeply disturbing, the tone and register point to courage, perseverance, and a powerful refutation of the violence of colonisation and the lies of history.
A Stolen Season
A Stolen Season, Rodney Hall’s first novel in over a decade, also takes on trauma, tracing its effects on the lives of the characters who people its pages. Adam Griffiths served in Gulf War 2, and due to what may have been “friendly fire” was reduced to little more than bones and burnt skin.
Now he has been returned from the dead, “a monstrosity”, and his previously estranged wife, Bridget, faces the dilemma of whether to remain with this shell of a man who functions only as a sort of android, or leave him to the uncertain compassion of government services: “There’s nothing to stop her walking out. Except the freedom to do so. This is what makes the possibility impossible.” Their story is interleaved with two others: that of Marianna Gluck, who like Adam was effectively dead, and then restored to a life of PTSD, paranoia, and flight; and the obscenely and pointlessly wealthy John Philip, whose vignette exposes the vapidity of the art market, celebrity culture, and elitism.
For each story line, an overwhelming issue is existential certainty; each character must realise that they are, after all, alive, and must therefore confront an ethical problem. This profoundly empathetic novel is finely attuned to sorrow and all its siblings – regret, pain, anguish, dust, despair. It offers glimmers of hope here and there, but no concrete answers.
In fact, each novel in this list is profoundly empathetic, and deeply attuned to contemporary Australia. While they look directly at crisis and suffering, they avoid hopelessness, using lyrical imagery, humour, and the consolations of art or family as tools against despair; and they suggest more intelligent, more compassionate ways to be human in the 21st century.
The winner of the Miles Franklin will be announced on Tuesday July 30.
The Miles Franklin award is famously for “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. That’s a very broad palette, yet for most of the award’s existence — 1957 to the present — it has recognised a rather narrow field of “Australian life”.
The 60 novels honoured to date include 42 written by 28 men, and 18 written by 14 women. Almost to a person, these winning authors are Anglo-Australian. While their narratives cover an impressive range of issues, topics, periods, structure and narrative voice, it is notable that in a country described by our prime minister as “the world’s most successful multicultural society”, the Miles Franklin seems to have remained a bastion of monoculture.
Until recently, that is. Women authors are appearing more frequently – on the shortlists and as prize winners – and the cultural and linguistic heritage of authors is similarly expanding. This year the mix of shortlist authors, and the content of their novels, is impressively diverse.
Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts is explicitly a literary novel, one with no overt plot and really only one voice. The narrator is fastidious to the point of primness, narrow and self-absorbed: a fussy old man who drifts into Grandpa Simpson moments, telling stories that wander from point to point with no apparent destination. Yet this work is also a remarkable account of memory, its fractures, and its fragments. This gives the lie to the narrator’s insistence that he is writing a report, not a novel, and casts a gentle melancholy over the work.
The unnamed narrator seems to have lived a life at arms length, remaining encased in abstractions, neglecting to experience anything at first hand. What I found the most desolate image in the novel is his childhood collection of glass marbles. The material expression of his life’s effort to “recollect” and “preserve” his memories and moods, they are no more than tiny flashes of colour, frozen in their glass bubbles, seeing and saying nothing.
In his sense of colour, and his hankering for the clarity of memory, is the suggestion that he contains within himself another man, one who yearns to feel.
No More Boats
Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats opens in 1967, the year Harold Holt disappeared and, through the magic of narration, incorporates in the opening pages what is yet to come: 2001, the Tampa crisis, the September 11 attacks. In these pages, Antonio, the protagonist, is both young Italian migrant, and the ageing man who has become the face of: “We will decide who comes to this country …”
He and Rose live in Parramatta, where young men like their son Francis are testing out models of masculinity; where young women like their daughter Clare are crafting lives beyond their parents’ oversight; a rich human zoo that provides the stage for a brilliantly observed and sensitively recounted novel illuminating the politics of identity, family, community and nation.
His family are forced to confront the public scandal of Antonio’s xenophobia, to understand why a migrant in a migrant community could be so thoroughly seduced by the violent logic of the hard right. There are no real answers, of course; but beyond the family’s distress and the community’s upheaval is the shadow of two centuries of Australia struggling against “too many boats”.
The Last Garden
Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden is based in a South Australian religious community named – perhaps ironically – Wahrheit. There is little truth here though, and easily as many secrets and violences as are found beyond Wahrheit’s boundaries. These are flushed out by the tragedy that opens the novel, where Matthias Orion, not-fully-committed member of the church, destroys everything he can reach on his property, and slaughters first his wife and then himself.
Their 15-year-old son Benedict arrives home from boarding school to discover this horror; and even as it breaks him, so too it marks the end of the community’s Nebelung, their mythical home. The novel is told through a careful interlacing of Benedict’s and the pastor’s perspectives. The latter fails miserably to care sufficiently for the deeply traumatised Benedict, who after all has become “part of the wound” the community finds itself suffering.
Left largely to himself, and to the horses that escaped his father’s murderous rampage, and to the fox that stands in for that angel of death, Benedict lives with, and like, the animals. In that living he finds a way to recover some sense of self, and to re-enter his community: though whether as messiah or as restored son is uncertain.
The Life to Come
The Life to Come, Michelle de Kretser’s new novel – actually a discontinuous narrative in five sections – offers an insider-outsider view of contemporary Australian society through the shifting focalisations, points of view and voices that comprise the sections. The threads that weave it together are Pippa, a self-satisfied, hyper-performative, not-quite-good-enough novelist, and “real” novelist George Meshaw, who disdains her shallow conceits and her populist writing style.
Pippa is the more visible of the two. She spends much of the novel charming and then disappointing friends, and struggling under the burden of her mother-in-law’s condescension, while always firmly focused on herself. George appears principally through his novels – the last of which, along with Pippa’s last, are tossed in the bin by Pippa’s disenchanted neighbour, who had hoped to find warmth and meaning in these works, but found only words.
While the stories are set in Sydney and in Paris, with references also to Sri Lanka, the twin foci of this novel (for me, at least) are, first, an excoriating critique of Australian colonialist attitudes and politics, and next the burning realisation that – as one character observes – “The only life in which you play a leading role is your own”; we are all merely bit players in the lives of others.
Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland is also structured in five discrete sections, the transitions here being characterised by the pulsing of time, rather than the geographical shifts of de Kretser’s work. Storyland starts and ends in the Illawarra region, during the early days of colonisation, where the possibility of trust or friendship between the local Wadi Wadi people and the invading British is constantly thwarted.
The sections between swoop up through the 19th and 20th centuries to a post-apocalypse future, and then cascade down again. Key elements – a river, a cave, a clever man’s axe – appear in each time period, connective tissue that binds them together. Characters too reappear, individuals or their descendants struggling with colonial society and its mores, with missed opportunities for connection, with the collapse of the environment and human society.
I read this novel as a migrant, and as a person of European descent, so I am not well positioned to evaluate the merits of McKinnon’s use of Aboriginal language and representation of the Aboriginal characters, but for me they were both convincing and moving. Story is not politics, but in it we can find ways to review ourselves and our histories, and perhaps begin to find points of conciliation.
Taboo, by Kim Scott, is located squarely in the post-Apology present, when the Australian government can express regret for the Stolen Generations while maintaining the Northern Territory Intervention; and when Aboriginal communities across the country are building new ways to enter the future without deserting the past.
Focalised primarily through the young woman Tilly, daughter of an Aboriginal man who, toward the end of his life, realised the power of language to heal his community’s wounds, it follows the people of Kepalup and their establishment of a Peace Park to settle the ghosts of local Aboriginal people slaughtered by the ancestors of local pastoralists.
Though the novel is necessarily tragic – killings, stolen children, wrecked lives – it also has something generous and pragmatic at its heart. Says Uncle Wilfred of the white community: “Sorry for the history, they say. Know it’s our country, our ancestral country. They’re not gunna give the land back, but know we’re the right people.”
Despite the record of massacre, despite the clumsy interventions by white people – well-meaning but condescending, unaware of how little they know of Noongar culture – the community turns to recovering their language, retelling stories, reclaiming culture, and finding “magic in an empirical age”.
These six novels convincingly meet the criteria of the Miles Franklin, providing accounts of Australian life in all its phrases, in stories of “the highest literary merit” that craft a kaleidoscopic portrait of this society.
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The winner of the Miles Franklin will be announced at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday 26th August from 4pm at Deakin Edge, Fed Square.
Josephine Wilson has won the 2017 Miles Franklin award for her novel Extinctions. Judging panel chair Richard Neville stated Wilson’s novel, “explores ageing, adoption, grief and remorse, empathy and self-centredness”. It takes a skillful and thoughtful novelist to pack so many “big issues” into a single narrative, but Wilson has achieved it, and the novel has won considerable recognition.
The Miles Franklin is, arguably, the apogee of Australian literary prizes, and Extinctions is a worthy addition to the list of earlier winners, among a worthy bunch of shortlisted entries.
The novel began its successful life when it was just a manuscript, and won the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award in 2015. Since then it has been enthusiastically reviewed by critics and peers: in the Sydney Morning Herald (by Dorothy Johnston), in the Sydney Review of Books (Roslyn Jolly), in the Australian Book Review (Gillian Dooley), and in pretty well every other review outlet in Australia. It was featured on the ABC Books and Writing show and Wilson has fronted up to a number of literary festivals. I’m confident Extinctions will be set on Australian literature courses across the country.
Wilson has nailed key anxieties and preoccupations that characterise the current moment. Ageing, of course, thanks to the population bulge; cultural loss, especially for members of the Stolen Generations; environmental crisis associated with the Anthropocene (the age in which human impacts have come to dominate Earth); and the conflicts that are at the heart of storytelling – in this case, within the family, and with the self.
The central character, Fred Lothian, is a retired academic engineer, whose specialisation is concrete and Modernist design. He finds himself widowed, estranged from his daughter, avoiding his seriously brain-injured son. He is a damaged and dissatisfied man, hiding in his retirement villa, where every inch of space is cluttered with the material objects he has not been able to discard.
Wilson observes and records all this with a cool eye, and records too the distress, anxieties and ethical struggles faced by the other characters, particularly Fred’s daughter, Caroline. An adopted child (“of course she wasn’t really stolen”, says Fred. “We adopted at the end of that period”), she doesn’t feel able to name herself as Aboriginal, knows she resembles no one in her circle, and fears she is recognised by no one. Compounding this emotional burden, she is researching species extinction for an exhibition she is preparing.
The redeeming element is Jan, Fred’s neighbour at the retirement village. She is, effectively, the positive side of the coin, the mirror of both Fred and Caroline. Her warmth, her direct engagement with Fred’s obdurate misery, and the clarity of her understanding begin to shake loose some of the accreted history around the other characters.
“In the end”, reads the preface to Extinctions, “all is allegory”. But allegory has material effects, and the stories we tell ourselves, and the connections we draw within those stories, have the capacity to lead us to or away from extinction. For much of the book, and reflected in the drawings and other images scattered through it, extinction seems the inevitable conclusion.
Let me give Jan the last word, because she delivers what seems to me the coda to the narrative. Watching a child playing on a beach, she reflects: “At that moment, anything was possible”. As the novel draws to its conclusion, that more hopeful premise seems true.
The 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner will be announced tonight, but I’m not taking bets on who it’s likely to be. Each shortlisted novel is by a first-time nominee. Each is of satisfyingly high literary quality and very different in voice, logic, focus and story.
But they do have one feature in common: each includes as a key character an author, or authors. I’m not sure I have ever read a shortlist where the protagonists of each volume shared an occupation. Of course all five include heartbreak, loss and death — that is, after all, de rigueur for literary fiction — but the focus on the lives and works of writers, and on narratives about narrative, presents as though the Australian literary community as one turned to look inward, and then wrote down what it saw.
I started with Last Days of Ava Langdon, by poet and novelist Mark O’Flynn. This book, which channels the Australian-New Zealand writer Eve Langley, opens with the rhythm and pulse of a prose poem:
Sound of the sea slapping at the green and greasy legs of pier. The crashing of dishes. A cartoon whale.
This, on the very first page, sets the tone for the rest of the novel, one that vividly renders the glorious Blue Mountains environment (and its small towns with their country values), and the portrait of a writer who might have been, should have been, no longer is.
O’Flynn presents his Langley/Langdon as immensely sympathetic, and stunningly irritating. “All her life”, says the narrator, “has been the pursuit of the perfect line”.
While any writer must surely doff the cap to that pursuit, Ava’s single-mindedness has been more destructive than productive. She valiantly channels Oscar Wilde, refuses to acknowledge that she is ancient and frail, ignores the squalor of her home, and flickers between hope and hopelessness about her writing. She is a damaged person, a dada artist. She has lost her family and friends and she dies alone.
Still, Ava’s imagination (to say nothing of her splendid dress sense) brings a degree of sentience to the world, casting it in a luminous light. O’Flynn’s novel brings to bear a cold but tender gaze on “the last days” of someone who, but for fortune, could have been an extraordinary Australian artist.
Misfits in an unforgiving world
Philip Salom, another poet, gives us Waiting. It relies on the skill of poetic diction and the narrative traction of strong characters, the “looking awry” that so often accompanies mental illness, and the urgency to connect, to find a safe haven in an unforgiving world.
He juxtaposes together two pairs of difficult people to propel the narrative. The first two are Big (a cross-dressing, over-performing “crazy professor”) and his partner Little (quiet, crushed Agnes, the troubled lamb of god). They have effectively fallen out of history and are, Agnes reflects, “two characters in a novel who have no further story”.
The second pair, by contrast, are the inheritors of a further story: designer/landscaper Angus (coincidentally Agnes’ cousin) and the linguist Jasmin. They are creeping by fits and starts toward a relationship, but unlike Big and Little, who cling together for the most part in real intimacy, Jasmin and Angus struggle to connect, given their tendency to compete with each other, and their misunderstandings of each other’s values and professions. For Angus, the physical shaping of the material world is what matters. For Jasmin, it is the socio-political positioning of work that matters.
The novel is set against the increasingly threatening qualities of bushfire in the Australian environment, and the increasingly constrained options for those who do not or cannot fit into middle class conventions. The characters’ stories play out, to an end that promises consolation, at least.
Not so isolated
With Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident, we leave the poets and misfits and return to the “real” world: small-town New South Wales, and the struggle to make a living, maintain an identity, and retain hope for the future.
Chris Rogers, a barmaid and some-time prostitute, is faced with the loss of her beloved younger sister Bella, whose body is found on the side of the road, raped and murdered. May Norman, an ambitious journalist, attaches herself to Chris to report on the story and the unfolding investigation. So far, so crime thriller.
But actually, this is more an analysis of mourning, woven through with a biting critique of the social and legal context in which, in Australia, one woman is murdered each week, on average, by someone close to her. At one point May reflects on yet another appalling story of such violence, and observes:
This had nothing to do with what had happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves…
The unwavering attention paid to violence against women and to the commercial exploitation of suffering renders the title bitterly ironic: all these “isolated incidents” add up to a deeply felt and troubling novel.
Extinctions of all kinds
Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions is the winner of Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript prize, so has already made a significant mark on the literary landscape. It offers a tragic portrait of the various ways in which extinction looms — environmental, personal, cultural.
We see the sorrows, indignities and regrets of old age, as viewed through the eyes of retired theoretical engineer Fred Lothian, who fills his home with designer furniture rather than with his family.
We see the heartbreak of a wasted life, in his brilliant son, Callum, who was left with acquired brain injury following a car accident. And we see the struggle for identity in his adopted daughter, Caroline, who researches species extinction and is disconnected from her own Indigenous heritage. Together, these stories present an overwhelming narrative of loss, failure and distress.
But there is the possibility of an alternative in the form of Fred’s neighbour Jan. Though like Fred and his family, she has suffered great loss, she brings a wonderful energy and resilience, and a refusal to resign herself to extinction. Instead, she presses Fred to start over, to find a more productive way to be.
Finally, we come to Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers, one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. He sails close to the wind of defamation (were the original authors still alive), unmercifully lampooning the models for his “extraordinary Australian writers”.
Like a supremely confident stand-up comic, he pushes the joke from initial humour through infuriating repetition to helpless laughter. And along the way, he shows impressive knowledge of Australian literary culture, so erudite readers can play the game of “spot the reference”. We see the sexism that runs through literary culture. We revisit the poetry wars— “a knife fight in a phone booth” — in the character of Arthur rhutrA, an author of whom it was said that: “the only constraint he couldn’t overcome was his lack of talent”.
We bump into parallel-universe versions of Ern Malley, Australia’s most infamous literary hoax, and radio characters Dad and Dave. We meet the litigious Stratford, self-proclaimed original author of works plagiarised and made famous by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce.
We are confronted by the rightwing racist Edward Gayle (writer for the journal Quarter) and the communist Francis McVeigh, whose early memory of reading Marx’s Manifesto “terrified me so much I had nightmares for the next six months”. Literary giant after literary giant, publisher after publisher, is kneecapped by these excoriating and hilarious accounts of the players, their work, and the impossibly interwoven lives they lead.
There is a surprising degree of compassion in the narrative voice that relates each of these novels, even when they are also characterised by sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued commentary. The characters are damaged — as are most human beings — but (with the exception of some of O’Neill’s writers) they are rarely people of ill will.
The narrators, in each case, maintain the distance required of an objective observer, yet cannot help but record small acts of humanity, the struggle to manage, to be recognised and to recognise others. This makes them, as a group, the most heart-warming selection of shortlisted novels that I have read for some time.