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Suburban absurdity: Mark Lamprell’s new novel

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The Full Ridiculous by Mark Lamprell           Published by Text:    $29.99

When a successful cinematographer turns to the art of the novel, the expectations are high. After all, the external, visual world of the screen is closely aligned to the internal universe of the novel – and books are often turned into movies.

First time novelist Mark Lamprell’s  screen credits are impressive and include the memorable Babe, so I was looking forward to reading The Full Ridiculous. But I was, I confess, disappointed.

Lamprell’s narrator is Michael O’Dell, a cinema reviewer turned film book writer who’s struggling with his latest opus, a history of Australian cinema. One day, as he’s completing his morning jog, he is hit by a car. A seemingly random event from which he recovers, but for Michael, it’s life changing.  From that moment on, his life is quite literally turned upside down.

His 14-year old daughter Rosie gets suspended for hitting another girl at her exclusive girls’ school. His son Declan smokes marijuana in his room and is dealing drugs. Michael himself is soon unemployed, as his publisher sees no future for his book. Only his wife, Wendy, sticks by him although, as Michael sinks further and further into depression, even her patience wears thin over the course of the narrative.

Male depression is an important topic and ripe for literary mining. Lamprell’s style is colloquial, easy to read, and captures the lilt, tone and preoccupations of 21st century family life. How do you pay the mortgage when one partner loses his source of income? How do you reprimand erring teenagers in a society where physical punishment is no longer acceptable, but pure verbal recrimination yields no result?  How does a man retain masculine pride when he feels he’s losing his grip on his family and on himself?

These are familiar themes and Lamprell tackles them with aplomb. And yet, there’s something fundamental missing from this novel.  Much as the reader feels sorry for Michael, who’s clearly undergoing a mental catharsis, his passivity and resignation make him a profoundly irritating hero.

And there are inconsistencies too. Chekov famously advised writers never to introduce a gun in Act I unless it was going to be used in Act 2. (Sound advice, which Alfred Hitchcock chose to ignore – the Hitchcockian MacGuffin was a red herring, deliberately planted early on in the script to keep the audience off the scent). There are many MacGuffins jarring in The Full Ridiculous, which add little to the composition of the narrative or the fleshing out of the characters.

Wendy is introduced as Jewish (why? Her religion and its impact on her family is not a theme in this book);  Rosie’s boyfriend,  Juan, an adopted black South American boy, comes to live with them because of family problems of his own, yet his presence is never satisfactorily accounted for.  Themes are introduced and underdeveloped, sacrificed to pace and the need to tie up the storyline in a perfect cinematographic arc, which cloud the central focus of male depression.

Maybe Lamprell wishes to impress upon us that life, like his novel, is full ridiculous, that absurdity reigns, that we have to be grateful for managing to bumble through each day because, who knows, we may be knocked off our feet at any moment.  If that’s the case, Lamprell succeeds – but such absurdities come at the expense of narrative depth.

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Jaded Memories of Youth: Peter Goldsworthy

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His Stupid Boyhood by Peter Goldsworthy            Hamish Hamilton  $29.99

The trouble with history is that it’s retrospective. Everything makes sense and can be justified or condemned from the comfort of your 21st century living room. When writing about external events, objectivity comes naturally. The more difficult task by far is that of autobiography.

Nevertheless, writer Peter Goldsworthy attempts this in his deadpan but very funny account of the first 20 years of his life, His Stupid Boyhood.  Goldsworthy is a  prizewinning Australian poet, playwright, novelist and now librettist – his opera “Ringtone Cycle”, a delightfully-named cabaret quintet for singer, piano trio, and iPhone (sic), composed with Graeme Koehne, will be produced by Opera Australia this year.

Goldsworthy is also a doctor, and divided his time between writing and general practice. He’s been hailed as the “Australian Chekov”, (a sobriquet which should surely be awarded to playwright and doctor Ron Elisha, who was prominent during the 1970s and 1980s). I’ve often wondered about this curious link between medicine and writing. There seems to be a mystic line that links some healers and artists. Think of neurologist turned author Oliver Sacks, British poet and GP Dannie Abse – or, indeed other luminaries such as John Keats, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Carlos Williams, AJ Cronin, W Somerset Maugham and Mikhail Bulgakov who were all medically trained.  If science transits pleasingly into poetry, Goldsworthy’s special gift  is his ability to make the prosaic poetic, to take the seemingly mundane events of everyday life and give them a novel spin.

Goldsworthy takes us into the suburban life of his childhood in South Australia. His father was an itinerant teacher and so the family moved frequently from place to place. Maybe it was this sense of impermanence that spurred Goldsworthy on to putting things down permanently onto paper. We witness his first years at school, his friendships and battles, his first love – the sound of car engines being cranked into life – his forays into multi-culturalism as he surveys the strange and wonderful meals his Dutch and Italian classmates bring in their lunchboxes.

We see his early romantic crushes, the embarrassing fumbles with girls in the cinema, his disenchantment with his own lanky body as he grows taller and thinner in adolescence. He is both intellectually curious, and entrepreneurial: his first book sales were hand-written instructions for his used, cast-off Chemistry sets which he sold to gullible classmates!

Above all, Goldsworthy makes us share his burgeoning love for his twin passions – literature and science. Science was the subject of some of his earliest poems and remains a fascination. Here’s one to Ether:

The recipe for cooking ether

I’ve forgotten. One level tablespoon

of concentrated nitric acid

plus heaped teaspoonfuls

of poisonous powders, misc.

The names are gone:

from that short night

only this comes back:

drops of ether gathering

at the distal ice-cooled tip

like tears, like even clearer

moonshine, swelling till

detachment weight,

then falling, falling, gone;

vanished into dreamy vapour

Before they hit the bench

Under which I slept.”

Compare this later, successful mood poem to an earlier poem, Hollow Clocks, published by a young Goldsworthy in his University paper, Barbitos, in the 1970s.

“time no longer drifts

it runs; feet

stumblingbleedingaching.

dead

discarded days

twist away through space

lost, ashamed, sickened.

yet others wait

shining in military rows

eager

unsuspecting.”

Goldsworthy Senior tears into this youthful effort, ravages it. He hasn’t a good word to say about it now: for him it’s pretentious, forced, derivative (compound words like stumblingbleedingaching had already been coined by James Joyce fifty years earlier.) And yet, Goldsworthy has captured the fury of many young intellectuals contemplating Australia’s involvement with the Vietnam War. There’s undeniable promise here, which Goldsworthy refuses to acknowledge.

In fact, the most striking fact about His Stupid Boyhood is Goldsworthy’s complete self-deprecation. He doesn’t look kindly on his younger self. He dismisses himself as a dandy and a prig, self-obsessed, self-absorbed and completely lacking in self-awareness.

Though Goldsworthy’s honesty is refreshing, you can’t help feeling he’s being unduly tough on himself. Many of us have gone through the same phase of being arrogant as teenagers, indulged in precious affectations and written very bad verse. The difference is Goldsworthy’s early verses were not only better than most and published but read to – and enjoyed – by none other than Allen Ginsberg who just happened to be visiting Australia at the time. Not bad for an 18-year old pipe-smoking medical student with a penchant for bilious coloured cravats! If Goldsworthy writes a further instalment of his memoirs, I’ll be happy to follow him through the next stage of his life. Hopefully, he’ll look kinder on himself by Volume 2.

Read it: for superb poetry and almost total recall of an Australian suburban childhood in the Fifties and Sixties.