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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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