Thursday, July 15, 2010
Permanent marks etched into fragile human skin, and the soul of a whole city – these are the two disparate touchstones on which rests Fiona McGregor’s new and highly readable novel, Indelible Ink.
Taking her city’s natural beauty as a sine qua non, McGregor anthropologises her characters to reveal that the central truth of our time may be the banal but inescapable fact that real estate is destiny.
Yet the values of real estate sit uncomfortably with, but can never be easily separated from, equally important concepts such as attachment to and knowledge of the landscape of one’s home, the need to preserve architectural history and even the duties of parents.
In the light of this backdrop this panoramic novel unobtrusively deals with a vast number of themes with great wit and assurance – climate change and water shortages, tensions between siblings, the tortures of adolescence, sexuality and illness, the comfortable boredom of monogamy, creativity versus financial stability, the difficulties of single parenting and repartnering, the responsibilities of parents to adult children, female poverty after divorce, politically motivated policing, and gay singledom.
While this long list may make the novel sound like a sociological study, you’d never know it. In fact, McGregor’s clear observations and refusal to judge leave the reader floundering, desperately attempting to fill in the huge moral lacuna the author appears to have dug in the novel’s epicentre. This lacuna is one of the secrets behind the cleverness of Indelible Ink.
Widening the mainstream
McGregor is hardly the first novelist to take Sydney as her muse. The mythical aspects of Australia’s oldest and largest city exert a siren-like attraction for writers, its social fabric and arresting topography rent by rapacious capitalist heavies and, more lately, the unheralded catastrophe of climate change even while it continues to glow with its own astounding, seemingly indestructible natural beauty.
Recent treatments by Richard Flanagan (The Unknown Terrorist) and in the eighties Janet Turner Hospital’s now unjustly forgotten The Last Magician celebrate the great sexual and social decadence and urban decay of Sydney as much as they deplore it, seduced by the pulsing energy that a subtropical climate, sexual licence and the urgency of late capitalism cook up.
McGregor refuses to dichotomise and therefore avoids the salaciousness that ex-Catholic Flanagan, brilliant though he is, falls into. In fact, this novel shows her to be equally impatient with a number of fundamental oppositional pairs: good and evil, body and soul, life and death, abject and exalted.
With its emphasis on Melbourne’s eternal rival, the book could be read as a companion volume to Christos Tsiolkas’s now almost iconic Melbourne-based The Slap. The furious and unexpected success of this novel demonstrated not only that readers were desperate for fiction exploring ‘the way we live now’ (with all the contradictions in that concept) but that Tsiolkas himself, with his fearless placing of his own bodily and social subjectivity in the fictional spotlight, had actually extended the boundaries of the mainstream to include the experiences of second-generation migrants and gays, just as Garner did with women in The Monkey Grip and her subsequent fiction.
When Tsiolkas and McGregor came to prominence in the nineties, both were immediately filed away in the ‘grunge’ category. But this process of categorisation and their subsequent careers suggest that so-called grunge may have been above all an extension of realism through an attempt to bring the hitherto abjected reaches of bodily and social experience into the symbolic. How fitting that these two writers, also labelled ‘queer’, are now the ones ripping open the suburban blind to reveal particular cultural moments in their respective home cities.
As The Slap did for its author, this novel suggests a fictional coming of age for McGregor, a Generation X-er who rose to literary prominence with her searing short story collection Suck My Toes in 1994. At the time the craze for lesbian chic was at its height, and McGregor – with her shaved head, stunning looks and acerbic style – seemed to exemplify its more subversive aspects.
****Plot elements given below****
A privileged, spendthrift and alcoholic baby boomer, 59-year-old Marie King is reaching a turning point. Recently divorced from her advertising executive husband, Ross, and misunderstood by her children, she is reluctantly considering selling her beloved Mosman home with its view of the ‘dense blue harbour’, and leaving the North Shore.
After a lonely drunken evening she rolls into a tattoo parlour and acquires a shoulder rose. This foray leads to an insatiable need to keep decorating her body, an urge that causes her to question the values and lifestyle of her North Shore milieu.
She soon meets Rhys, an unconventional tattoo artist who introduces her to an alternative world not bound by the values of real estate. But as the sale of her home proceeds, Marie receives news that will throw her into the territory of her body like never before.
Marie is not a particularly heroic heroine in the traditional sense – in an early scene she buys a nine-thousand-dollar lounge suite without blinking – but from the start she’s likeable and unassuming.
Her greatest strengths are her deep affinity with the landscape and beach of the picturesque cove that her multimillion-dollar home fronts onto, and her encyclopaedic knowledge of the indigenous plants of her abundant Mosman garden and the natural dangers that beset them in Sydney’s seemingly idyllic climate. A nurturer of the land, she is old-style Mosman through and through.
Yet Marie achieves one great thing in the novel: ageing and its vicissitudes and the lure of the needle provide the impetus for her to reach a post-feminist awakening to her body, and through that, to discover an autonomous self, an enriched erotic life and connections with others who are not bound by the extreme materialism she’s been mired in.
In decorating her ageing skin and enduring the pain and exultation of body art, Marie also comes to extend the limits of her social and emotional repertoire. The experiences of the body, whether painful and pleasurable, enable her to know herself and engage with the world in a more honest and authentic way. As she decorates her body she learns to inhabit it.
It is to the novel’s credit that this transformation is as profound as it is subtle; after all, there’s already a staid kind of liberalism, complete with illicit affairs and drug dabbling, in the brash wealth of the moneyed world that Marie emerges from after her divorce. McGregor’s Mosman is hardly the uptight Moonee Ponds of Edna Everage, but a place so mired in competitive materialism that there’s little room for anything else. There’s also a surprising degree of ageism in the reactions of Marie’s friends and children to her tattooing odyssey.
****Plot elements end****
McGregor’s writerly style is quick, nimble and witty (‘they stared at a mob of shoppers charging through the doors for the Australia Day sales as though fleeing a tsunami’) but there’s sometimes a simultaneous sense of both depth and reach in her writing.
She flits from the tiny detail to the panoramic view and back again seemingly effortlessly, describing minutiae and wider concerns with equal authority: ‘The lawns of the reserve crunched between her feet like toast. The news said the heatwave death toll was three …’. She’s a highly visual writer, alive to the variegated beauty of nature and the human attempt to emulate that beauty through art – including body art.
Moreover, McGregor has a real knack for getting inside her characters’ heads and bodies while at the same time managing to present a panoramic view. Even the most mundane activities, such as refilling a car with petrol, give us insights into the characters’ inner lives, as well as Western culture as played out in Sydney: ‘Her car was a tick sucking up its weekly supply, injecting its host with poison simultaneously’.
As readers it’s Marie’s inner life we most often have access to, but at various times we also view the action from the perspective of her three children, Clark, Leon and Blanche. Some may be shocked at the Machiavellian ease with which these characters navigate and view their lives, particularly Blanche, who’s easily the most materialistic and, like Marie’s Mosman friends, obsessed with ephemera.
On the cusp between Generation X and Y, but owing their values to the latter, Marie’s children nurture various degrees of self-obsession and to some extent are seemingly trapped in a never-ending adolescence; however the dog-eat-dog, survivalist atmosphere of Sydney seems to be partly to blame, despite the three being so firmly middle-class. Although McGregor is faithful to their inner worlds, at times it’s hard to feel much for them apart from a basic sympathy, except perhaps in the case of Clark, significantly the only one who has a child.
McGregor’s political project is to retain the exigencies of the body at the forefront of the action, and we are as familiar with Marie’s digestive problems as we are with her newfound joys in her decorated skin or the awkward disjunctures her tattooing opens up with friends and family members: ‘a ream of burps emerged from her mouth, harsh and bitter like sulphuric gas’. Similarly, McGregor’s sex scenes are original and graphic while never being merely titillating. She’s able to present sex in a way that is funny and at times poignant but never romantic; for her, it’s a site where mind and body are often at odds with each other, much as they would like to coincide.
Her modus operandi also enables her to avoid romanticising the landscape and flora of Sydney, much as she appears to adore it. The subtropical climate leaves Marie’s angophora vulnerable to fungi; a street of ‘hooded figs’ leave an ‘acidic carpet of figs and fig shit dropped by bats at night and lorikeets during the day’. Nor is nature a still landscape for us to contemplate; it’s dynamic, noisy, pulsing and sometimes almost human, forever competing with the never-ending buzz of human activity: ‘The clouds parted and a billion tiny legs in the trees around the house grew frenetic with their worship’.
This natural plenitude, although distantly threatened by climate change, is mirrored in the abundance of fresh, beautifully prepared food in the novel (‘Susan unwrapped a piece of dark chocolate and began to grate it over a pear tart’); McGregor’s Sydney is still a land of plenty for the upper middle classes, one in which climate change has so far failed to quell the urge to excess that money fosters. In fact, with its adumbration of frenzied, upiquitous activity on every level of life – the rampant materialism no more meaningful or thought-out than the instinctive sun-worship of cicadas – it would be easy to assume that McGregor's view of life is Darwinian. I think it would be more accurate to read her style as a refusal to preach; her aim is simply to let the reader make up their own mind.
An insider’s view from the outside
The quarrel I have with the concept of ‘how we live now’ is that ‘we’ are all too often well-rewarded Fairfax journalists writing their smug but guilty columns from the security of their inner suburban veggie patches. McGregor’s feat here is to bring us a front-row view of a prime economic and cultural site with an insider’s knowledge but the cool gaze of the outsider.
Like so many of Australia’s prominent writers, and in stark contrast to Tsiolkas, McGregor’s background is unremittingly upper middle class; she grew up on the lower North Shore, in what is undoubtedly the epicentre of social prestige in Australia. But having occupied the outsider role in both life and fiction (she is a queer performance artist), she brings a bloodless, gimlet eye to this world.
The dinner party that Marie attends with her old friends the Joneses is one example. The various conversations and interactions are a delight. The question of whether one of Marie’s friends has had a boob job and is using Botox, the merits of Morocco as a holiday destination, and the competitiveness of Ross’s former business partner, who spends hundreds of thousands on a Nolan painting merely to compete with him, are all subjected to ironic scrutiny.
Marie’s children are all obsessed with real estate, with varying degrees of ruthlessness in their pursuit of the security ownership brings; but time proves that their generation doesn’t have the monopoly on selfishness. And while Marie is in many ways ‘old style’ Mosman, in comparison to the brash multimillionaires transforming it, a previous ‘gothic pile’ had once been demolished to build her loved home.
McGregor tells us a rollicking good story, a ripper yarn, as she drags us along, sometimes at breakneck speed, on Marie’s often wild journey, with its 360-degree turns and sharp emotional drops. But, like the finest literary misery memoir, McGregor refuses to fill in the dots with whys and wherefores, or to supply convenient heroes and villains.
Instead she leaves us with quietly devastating scenarios built around her central thesis, that the chief divide in Australian society may be neither gender nor class, but whether one ‘owns’ or not. I won’t give away the ending here, but the subtle traces of certain off-stage characters in the final scene brilliantly echo McGregor’s refusal to overtly pass judgement, even as it devastates.
This is what I took from the novel: in all the emphasis on the solidity of bricks and mortar, on their ability to both provide and remove everything that matters most – security, stability, wealth, a planned future – the body itself must and should be made paramount. Walls and houses were once things built to provide shelter for the fragile body. Now they have the ability to decide which bodies thrive and which don’t. If we all undertook a journey into the body such as the one that Marie bravely embarks on, there’s a slim chance that they might return to their original function.
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