In 2008, Australian author Christos Tsiolkas divided readers with his Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning novel The Slap (later turned into a successful ABC TV miniseries), an unflattering exploration of suburban Melbourne that exposed the moral ambiguities of modern family life through the eyes of eight characters present at a barbecue where a man slaps someone else’s child. While some considered its protagonists grotesque and caricatured, others found its portrayal of ordinary Australian lives refreshingly honest; Tsiolkas doesn’t shy away from using his fiction to pose difficult questions about how we live today.
His latest novel, Barracuda, returns to similar territory, although it’s a more focused character study than The Slap and deals more explicitly with the question of class. We’re back in the suburbs of Melbourne, where, in 1994, 14-year-old Danny Kelly secures a scholarship to a private school on the basis of his exceptional swimming talent. Danny’s determined to win Olympic gold one day, and although he resents the privilege of his new surrounds, with its front gate ‘that looked like it should have belonged to a mansion from the movies, a mansion with a thousand rooms and with butlers and maids and ghosts’, his drive to succeed keeps him focused. Eventually, he falls in with the cool rich kids—the ‘golden boys’—who christen Danny ‘barracuda’ on the basis of his tough attitude and single-minded desire to be ‘the fastest, the strongest and the best’.
But wanting something badly enough is no guarantee you’ll get it; when Danny fails to achieve his dream and the Olympics come to Sydney in 2000, he commits a terrible act that will change his life forever and set him on an entirely different path to the one he’s imagined for so long.
Tsiolkas shifts his narrative back and forth in time: chapters alternate between the young Danny and his progression through high school and escalating swimming success and the Danny of today, a quiet and inward-focused man who eschews modern technology (he doesn’t own a computer) and works as a carer for people with disabilities; when we first meet this Danny, we discover that he no longer swims, and the reasons for this are gradually revealed as the narrative progresses. While the younger Danny’s chapters move forward in time, the older Danny’s chapters mostly move backwards, taking us back through his adult years to reveal how his experiences have shaped the man he is now.
Tsiolkas is fond of incorporating big social issues in his fiction: his characters argue about familiar topics that include racism, refugees, and the rules and regulations that govern contemporary Australian life. But what makes Barracuda such an engaging novel is its sympathetic (but uncompromising) exploration of what Danny’s ambition costs him and how he deals with the fallout of a single violent act. The novel is an astute character study that also raises pertinent questions about how we define success and failure and how we reconceptualise our identity when the future we once envisaged for ourselves all but disappears.
Danny’s story is also a reminder of how readily Australia glorifies sport (and sporting success), and the often grim flipside of the intense national spirit and pride that accompanies major sporting events and typifies our adulation of successful athletes. To say that the younger Danny is difficult to like is an understatement: he’s a surly, self-absorbed, angry young man whose entire reason for being becomes predicated on the need to win. Danny’s parents face their own struggles as they try to foster Danny’s talent without fracturing the family dynamic, and Tsiolkas captures this with sensitivity: Danny’s father Neal is a proudly working class Scotsman who has difficulty accepting how selfish Danny has become in his urge to be the best, while his Greek mother happily rises at 4 am each morning to drive Danny to the pool for training, unwittingly neglecting her younger daughter in the process.
The older Danny, however, is an almost entirely different man, and one still trying to find his place in the world. He doesn’t own a computer, loves nothing more than losing himself in novels and enjoys silence, concluding that ‘loneliness could be found in conversation, it lurked in words’. Danny has to grow up the hard way, and Tsiolkas skilfully gives us a full and sometimes ugly portrait of a man who must re-establish his identity and learn to accept his past and present.
Barracuda does falter slightly in its final third: once we’ve learned of the young Danny’s misdeed, the novel feels a little directionless, and we’re given several chapters of minor domestic drama that feel a little bit like padding. Still, Tsiolkas does a fine job of showing us how Danny evolves, and how his struggle to be the best gradually transforms into a much harder struggle to overcome his own history and be a good man: ‘He couldn’t think how anyone but himself could be the hero of his own life, but he knew that he wasn’t a hero’.
Christmas is a fraught time in a bookseller’s life. It generally begins in September, when you begin unpacking boxes full of shiny new releases cunningly timed to coincide with that special time of year when everyone is gripped by the need to spend money on gifts and lacking the kind of caution that might normally curb their spending habits. In October, you begin to feel slightly concerned by the fact that you haven’t yet had time to read any of these new releases and your pile of reading copies slash impulse purchases keeps growing; meanwhile, shelf space in your shop keeps shrinking. In November, trade has picked up dramatically and customers’ recommendation requests are tinged with a hint of aggression as they get closer to panic-buying stage. By December, you have generally lost the will to live. There is no shelf space anywhere, ever, all the new releases have coagulated in your brain to form one giant absurdist novel that involves a samurai octopus and a boy wizard, and every customer asks you questions like, ‘I need a present for my father-in-law. He doesn’t really read’, followed by an expectant stare.
Anyway. As we approach this special time of year, I generally deal with my panic by pretending that Christmas isn’t real, which, it turns out, isn’t a very effective strategy. Instead of working my way through the entire Man Booker shortlist and starting Donna Tartt’s new novel, one of this Christmas’s biggest releases and a book that I’m supposed to be reviewing in time for its October release (I might also mention that it’s 800 pages long, THANKS A LOT, DONNA), I just read a book that came out in—wait for it—August! Despite my feelings of immense guilt each time I cracked the spine, it was (mostly) worth it. Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons is a thoughtful and elegantly written exploration of self-destruction, reinvention, and forgiveness, albeit one that doesn’t quite hit all the marks with dead-on precision.
Dee is a gifted observer of the human condition; his last novel, The Privileges, was shortlisted for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize (although I thought 2003′s Palladio was the more accomplished work). He’s on familiar ground in A Thousand Pardons, revealing the emotional and moral complexities of wealthy white people’s problems with subtlety and pathos. What might feel trivial or empty in a lesser writer’s hands is always powerful and resonant in Dee’s work thanks to his graceful prose and nuanced characters.
Ben and Helen Armstead are barely keeping their marriage together. Ben, a successful litigator, has become depressed and unresponsive, ‘like the walking dead’, and Helen realises that their adopted teenage daughter, Sara, ‘was old enough now that none of this was lost on her whether she knew it yet or not’. After a failed attempt at marriage counselling, Ben commits a predictable act involving a nubile young intern at his office, and the consequences are serious and dramatic—and, finally, the catalyst that helps his dying marriage to Helen take its last breath.
In the wake of divorce, Helen finds herself, almost by accident, working at a struggling PR firm in New York City, where she discovers an unusual talent for being able to get powerful men who have committed scandalous wrongs—a restaurant owner who doesn’t pay fair wages, a councilman caught hitting his girlfriend on camera—to publicly admit their culpability, thus inviting forgiveness instead of ongoing recrimination and negative media attention. Eventually, her work puts her in contact with Hamilton Barthes, a Hollywood star on the brink of self-destruction. He’s an old classmate of Helen’s, and, though he has no recollection of her, she has always kept the memory of the brief time they shared a kiss together during their junior high school years.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of his undoing, Ben finds his own strange ways of reconciling his past and present selves. As Helen struggles to marry her newfound skill for prompting forgiveness in others with the growing anger she feels towards her ex-husband, Sara becomes increasingly aggressive and distant. Over the course of the novel, all three Armsteads grapple with their ability to understand and forgive themselves and each other; curiously, it’s Helen’s fraught reconnection with Hamilton that brings their various conflicts to some kind of imperfect resolution.
Dee’s novels often tackle themes of appearance versus reality, and A Thousand Pardons is no exception, with its insights into the Machiavellian world of public relations and celebrities saving face; these are neatly juxtaposed with the struggles of one family attempting to negotiate and overcome their private turmoils. There’s also a certain perverse satisfaction one gets from reading Dee’s tales of rich, privileged white people whose apparently perfect lives are perfectly illusory—his characterisation of the American Dream feels both brutal and poignant.
While he explores some interesting concepts, Dee almost loses his way about two thirds of the way through; his writing is sharp and perceptive, but his Hamilton subplot—which turns out to play a crucial part in the story’s resolution—feels slightly underdeveloped, and his ideas about human connection and forgiveness ultimately not mined as deeply as they could have been. For all that, however, A Thousand Pardons is a clever and engaging read and a curious tale of how wilfully we can blind ourselves to our own problems.
On the day that Alyssa Nutting’s controversial debut novel, Tampa, was unpacked from its box in one of the bookshops where I work, I caught sight of the title and thought, ‘aha! This must be a well-timed book about refugee tragedy’. (For anyone who doesn’t live in Australia, we’ve recently endured a particularly dispiriting federal election campaign; one of the main issues in the public eye was the plight of asylum seekers, triggering memories of 2001’s Tampa controversy).
Then I took a closer look at Tampa’s cover—a remarkably suggestive image of a pink button-hole at close range (seriously, who knew a button hole could scream ‘GENITALS’ so loudly?)—and my incredible deductive powers led me to conclude that this was definitely not a book about politics or refugees.
Twenty-six-year-old Celeste Price is an attractive high school teacher living in Tampa, Florida, with her square-jawed cop husband, Ford. When we first meet her, she admits to spending the night before starting her new job teaching eighth grade English at a local high school ‘in an excited loop of hushed masturbation’. Not, perhaps, the kind of night-before-nerves response you’d expect; but Celeste has a deep and disturbing sexual obsession with teenage boys, and that, it seems, is the sole motivating factor in her choice of career. Just as Nabokov’s Humbert could only be stirred by ‘nymphettes’, young adolescent girls teetering between childhood and adulthood, so Celeste is moved by the still-developing pubescent boy, the ‘last link of androgyny that puberty would permit … undeniably male but not man’.
Tampa is an unflinching, deliberately over-the-top look at the destructive capacity of misplaced desire; it’s also a surprisingly witty character study of a deeply unpleasant, yet strangely compelling, sexual predator. Celeste’s entire life is a carefully constructed facade designed to obscure her erotic proclivities from others—her fellow teachers, her charges’ parents, and Ford, whose sexual advances she finds so repulsive that she has to dose herself with drugs in order to endure them.
Celeste quickly sets her sights on Jack Patrick, a naive 14-year-old in one of her classes whose ‘lanky-limbed smoothness’ and frame that ‘shunned both fat and muscle’ is the embodiment of Celeste’s sexual tastes. It’s not long before she’s seduced him and provided him with a special mobile phone with which to contact her in order to minimise the risk of their affair being discovered. But, of course, things quickly become complicated; Jack is soon professing his love for Celeste and can hardly wait for them to make their relationship ‘public’ once he’s legal, but Celeste has no such long-term intentions. For her, the fling is purely physical, the satisfaction of an overwhelming need that seems to stalk her every thought and action. ‘One more year seemed to be the most realistic to hope for’, she reflects after several months of graphically described encounters in Jack’s house after school. ‘He’d grow, his voice would further deepen, defining muscle would thicken and broaden him. I couldn’t imagine being attracted to him beyond fifteen at the latest’.
Celeste is a narcissist, fixated with appearance and driven solely by her libido. Ironically, despite her meticulous planning and need to maintain control, she refers to her sexuality as a ‘deformed thing to be kept chained up in the attic’ and even expresses the wish that ‘my genitals were prosthetic, something I could slip out of’ due to their ‘constant drone of stimulation’.
But there’s no sense of remorse here—Celeste’s concern is always and only for herself. She’s driven not simply by her lust, but its apparent connection to enduring youthfulness. She’s obsessed with her own beauty in a way that goes far beyond pride at her toned limbs or pretty face; there’s a desperation to her sense of physical identity that’s reflected in her sexual appetite. Remembering compliments she’s received from staff at the plastic surgeon’s office she visits, she describes their smiles as ‘filled with sadistic delight’, their admiring words ‘no different from kicking me in the ribs and saying, Everything on you will one day sag’.
Tampa is an ugly book, and no doubt some readers will find its frequent sexually explicit scenes uncomfortable to read. But it’s also intelligent, bold, and very well written; Nutting treads a clever line between erotica and satire. She isn’t afraid to show us just how awful Celeste truly is, and her first-person narration shapes a character both abhorrent and poisonously funny. Celeste regards everyone around her with a mixture of contempt and indifference, reserving special disdain for those not blessed in the looks department; only the reader is privy to her running internal commentary of vitriol. Talking to her beleaguered colleague, the ageing and frumpy Janet, Celeste observes how ‘the charcoal frizz of [Janet's] perm hovered above her scalp like a rising cloud of smog’ and notes that ‘when her head swivelled my way I could almost hear the grinding sound of a long-standing boulder being moved’. No character in Tampa is especially likeable or sympathetic—instead, they’re almost gleefully one-dimensional and exaggerated, but it works because they’re filtered to us through the Celeste’s sociopathic gaze.
Tampa isn’t a morality tale—Celeste is irredeemable, her sense of self wholly submerged in her constant craving for sexual release. There’s no sense of a lesson learned at the book’s end; it’s a glimpse into the mind of a narcissist, not a polemic against underage sex or a risqué erotic novel.
Nutting’s book, which was inspired by the real-life case of Debra Lafave, is supposedly intended to highlight the double standard apparent in how we regard (and punish) women who seek sexual relations with underage boys as opposed to men who do the same with underage girls (Lafave, for example, received three years of house arrest for her transgression; if she’d been a man, the punishment would likely have been far harsher).
Ironically, a different sort of double standard was revealed upon the book’s release: some Australian bookshops have refused to stock it (do they also refuse to sell Lolita?). These actions have probably boosted sales; they also expose worrying truths about how confronting we apparently continue to find female sexuality. Still, for all its difficult subject matter, Tampa is a horribly entertaining read.
The US cover of Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, shows a young woman with her mouth taped shut. It’s a striking image, perhaps indicative of the revolutionary politics the book’s rather passive protagonist finds herself caught up in. But while the woman on the cover might be silenced, the literary world hasn’t stopped gushing about Kushner’s book since its release earlier this year, from revered critic James Woods to novelist Jonathan Franzen, who provided an appropriately enthusiastic cover quotation for the Australian edition of the novel.
The Flamethrowers is a visceral journey through 1970s New York and Italy, a tale of art, revolutionary politics, and high-speed motorcycle racing; it’s also a panoramic snapshot of America at a particular time and a kind of coming-of-age story. But despite its brilliantly evoked settings and timeless themes—and Kushner’s obvious writing talent—the overall effect is curiously flat.
At the novel’s centre is 23-year-old Reno (a nickname that refers to where she’s from, in ‘the real West’, a place of ‘ranchers. Drifters. Divorcées.’) a 23-year-old aspiring artist and motorcycle enthusiast, who moves to New York from Nevada with little more than her camera and a sense of possibility. New York is alive with avant-garde artists and anarchist groups; Reno soon begins a relationship with Sandro Valera, an artist 14 years her senior and a semi-estranged member of the wealthy Valera family, who own a tire and motorcycle empire back in Sandro’s home country of Italy. Sandro is openly disparaging of his family’s enterprise and what it represents: ‘My father and his cronies conspired to change the face of Italy’, he declares ‘They wrecked the place and made piles of money’. In a fitting rejection of his heritage, Sandro has made a name for himself crafting minimalist steel cubes and displaying them in empty rooms.
As Sandro’s other half, Reno finds herself socialising with New York’s artistic elite, who seem bowed beneath the combined weight of their own pretension and narcissism. Kushner astutely captures the art crowd, and, despite the faint undercurrent of satire, she never breaches the border between sharp observation and mockery. There’s a clever, but overly long, scene at a loft dinner party where semi-industrial objects such as old lightbulbs and telephones are displayed on long tables, Reno learns about an anarchist group called the Motherfuckers and guests endure a lengthy taped monologue by the host about the context of nudity and the semantics of homebuying.
But as Reno’s time in New York stretches ever onwards, there’s an increasing lethargy cloaking the story, and it’s only exacerbated by Reno’s passivity: things happen to her and rarely seem to have much effect. I think this is deliberate, and part of Kushner’s intent to capture the political, historical, and cultural zeitgeist of 1970s New York. The Flamethrowers is more a novel of time and place than a character study, and Kushner’s detailed set-pieces—from Reno’s blazing dash across the Bonneville Salt Flats in a land-speed trial to her time in a squat in Rome with a group of revolutionaries she barely knows—are richly evoked.
But while The Flamethrowers is artfully composed and captures a fascinating period of recent history, it’s just not as compelling as it should be; there’s an element of self-consciousness at play here that interferes with the reader’s ability to really engage with the narrative. The novel seems preoccupied with the concept of reality versus artifice (Reno poignantly notes that ‘certain acts, even as they are real, are also merely gestures’); everyone in the novel is performing a part, to a degree, and while this is certainly effective, it soon becomes deadening and tiresome—there’s a sense that all of this meandering between bars and parties and galleries isn’t actually going anywhere.
This isn’t helped by occasional chapters that take us out of Reno’s world to tell us the story of Sandro’s father and his journey from lustful schoolboy to motorcycle mogul, or to briefly describe a series of actions undertaken by the Motherfuckers in their heydey, which include bank robbing, Cadillac smashing, and murder. These digressions from the main narrative might augment the historical and ideological context of Kushner’s tale, but they also feel too displaced and fragmented; they read more as interruptions than anything else.
Thankfully, there’s a change of pace about two-thirds in. Reno wants to combine her love of art and motorcycle riding, since ‘the two things I loved were drawing and speed’. When she breaks the female land-speed record, she’s given an opportunity to visit Italy and do a photoshoot and publicity tour with the Valera racing team, a trip that Sandro consider a ‘ridiculous prospect’. Nonetheless, he eventually capitulates and the action shifts across the Atlantic. Reno endures 10 days at the Valera family’s picture-perfect Lake Como home with Sandro’s openly hostile mother, and, eventually, his self-assured cousin, Talia. It’s here that Kushner’s tale finally becomes more alive, both in her excruciating depiction of Reno’s immediate sense that she doesn’t belong and her subsequent involvement in a violent political demonstration in Rome.
The Flamethrowers might not scale the full heights of its ambitions, but there’s still plenty to admire here; Kushner is a skilled writer and intelligent observer. Reno’s passivity, frustrating though it is, also offers a thoughtful perspective on the blurred lines between life and art. ‘There was a performance in riding the Moto Valera through the streets of New York that felt pure’, Reno says. ‘Ronnie said that certain women were best viewed from the window of a speeding car, the exaggeration of their makeup and their tight clothes. But maybe women were meant to speed past, just a blur. Flash, and then gone. It was only a motorcycle but it felt like a mode of being.’
Every so often—OK, rarely, but it happens—you come across a book that seems to encapsulate your very understanding of the world, a book that makes you pause every few pages, every few lines, in order to quietly marvel at its prose and ideas and perfect emotional clarity.
Several months ago, I found Tim Parks’s Europa, short-listed for the 1997 Booker Prize, at the wonderful Atavist Books in Brisbane. This second-hand bookshop is tiny, but its selection belies its tardis-like exterior. I finally picked up Europa last week, feeling ever-so-slightly guilty because it’s not a new release (this is what happens to your reading habits when you work in a bookshop) but justifying my decision on the basis of its length: just over 200 pages. As it turned out, it took me a few days to read; much as I wanted to tear through Parks’s compelling stream-of-consciousness narrative, the rush of thoughts and feelings and anxieties that charge along every page demanded my time and concentration—there was too much going on at once and I didn’t want to miss a moment.
Parks’s narrator, Jerry, is a 45-year-old language teacher at an Italian university; he’s also beset by neuroses and self-loathing, the special kind brought on by a doomed love affair with a French colleague. When we meet Jerry, he’s trapped on a coach, and there he remains—agonising, philosophising, mentally self-flagellating, and occasionally flirting with the pretty Italian student sitting nearby—for much of the book’s duration.
But we’re not entirely cut off from the outside world; on the contrary, what makes Europa so powerful and so clever is Parks’s delicate tightrope act between external and internal experience. Jerry’s inner monologue doesn’t just expose us to his anguished internal conflicts, but the bland torture of a coach road trip, with its overpriced service station stops, awkward seating arrangements, poor audio-visual entertainment choices, and ‘nauseating smell of plastics and synthetic upholstery’.
The novel also has an interesting social and political dimension. Jerry, a handful of his colleagues and a few students are on their way to petition the European Parliament about changes to their working conditions. It’s not something Jerry really gives a toss about—he only signed up because he knew his ex-lover would be going, too—and he’s not the only one there under false pretences. ‘When we arrived at the University long ago’, he reflects, ‘each one of us signed a contract in which we accepted that the maximum duration of our job would be five years, because of course we imagined that we would use this time to become something else—a writer, a painter, a mother, a professor, an entrepreneur—but that by the end of those five years, our various private projects having failed, or not having satisfied us as we expected, we couldn’t leave, we could not give up our empty jobs’. There’s no real united front on Jerry’s coach, just as the European Union itself, for all its ‘holier than thou’ politics and aspirations of solidarity and harmony, is as hypocritical and self-serving as any man. Jerry’s recognition of this—his loss of faith and self-belief—also alludes more widely to the emptiness of the modern world, like the coach upholstery’s ‘synthetic red velvet that looks so plush, that promises such luxury, invites such complacence, the way all that is modern promises such luxury, invites such complacence, such sitting back in this world of paved roads and metalled directions, gleaming surfaces, reclinable seats, this world where everything is ready for us, technically, to be happy’.
If there’s one person who isn’t happy, it’s Jerry. He’s tried to fool himself into believing that he chose to take this trip simply to show ‘her’ (she’s not named until the book’s final sentence) that he’s moved on from their relationship, but ‘the very instant I took this decision was also the instant I recognized and recognized that I had always recognized that coming on this trip was one of those mistakes I was made to make’. Jerry’s become the man he never thought he’d be, and it ‘strikes home to me how much I had lost: my role as a father and husband, the obviousness of my old life, the simplicity of being somebody’s husband, somebody’s father, the readiness of an explanation when required, being able to say, This is who I am and what I do’.
Parks has a droll humour that gives the bleakness at the novel’s heart a savagely witty edge; Europa is a deftly balanced tragicomedy. For all his self-obsession, Jerry is observant, both of his fellow man and his environment (the novel’s supporting cast is particularly well realised, from the shambolic Vikram Griffiths, the cravat-wearing, whisky-drinking trip organiser whose shambolic manner belies his political cunning, to she, who stalks the passages of Jerry’s memory even as she sits across the aisle from him on the coach engrossed in Dead Poet’s Society). Standing in a floodlit square outside a cathedral in Strasbourg, Jerry reflects that Europe’s grand monuments have been ‘emptied of their potency precisely by the zeal with which we have focused on them, cared for them, illuminated them, absorbed them into the on-off neon of our intermittent modern night, our world of time-switches and default settings and above all discrete units of measure’. For all its philosophising and references to the classics and the history of Western thought, Europa is also very much grounded in a contemporary world we can recognise, among people we can recognise; and once the convoy arrives in Strasbourg to present their case, the narrative picks up pace and hurdles towards a shocking and satisfying conclusion.
Europa is a mesmerising study of desire, artifice and human nature that manages to be both cynical and beautiful: there’s something universal about Jerry’s angst-ridden journey, which is at once painful, resonant and darkly amusing. Despite its inherent pessimism, Parks’s tale is so rich in ideas and clarity of thought that reading it might even partially restore your faith in humanity.
Anyone familiar with the offbeat sketch show Portlandia, set in Portland, Oregon, has a pretty good idea of what it’s like: a city where people ride bikes and unicycles, eat vegan cupcakes, own lots of things with birds on them, and buy books like Vaginas: An Owners Manual from the Women & Women First feminist bookshop. Basically, it’s Hipstertown, and the sort of place young people go to ‘retire’.
The same year Portlandia had its television debut, American novelist Keith Scribner released his third book, The Oregon Experiment. Scribner’s depiction of small-town Oregon might not be as over-the-top satirical as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s comedy, but it certainly reinforces the cultural tropes we’ve come to associate with this part of the world. It’s a fascinating and elegantly written portrayal of secessionism, social conviction, and the personal betrayals and conflicts it can cause, and—surprisingly—the intense power of scent.
New Yorkers Scanlon and Naomi Pratt relocate to the small town of Douglas, Oregon, when Scanlon—an academic whose area of expertise is mass movements and domestic radicalism—lands a job at the local university. Although clearly good at what he does, Scanlon’s not had much luck in the fickle world of academia; he’s hoping that the Pacific Northwest, with its history of secessionist movements, will offer him the perfect field research opportunity. He’s intent on improving his standing by writing a book that will ultimately win him a teaching job at a more prestigious university back East.
Naomi’s story is more complex. A former fragrance designer, her sense of smell—a sense that defined her experience of the world—inexplicably disappeared following a minor car accident 12 years ago. Scanlon’s attempts to describe the smells she can no longer detect has long been part of his role as her rescuer—a role Naomi has always been happy for him to assume. But as soon as the couple drive into Douglas, the heavily pregnant Naomi’s smell suddenly returns—and with it a shift in the dynamics of her relationship with Scanlon.
Scanlon settles quickly into Douglas life, becoming involved in the local Pacific Northwest Secessionist Movement (PNSM) and befriending one of its leading members, earthy café owner Sequoia Green. Sequoia is immediately convinced that someone like Scanlon could be the key to the PNSM’s success, although Scanlon’s advice at the first meeting he attends is to change their name, since ‘PNSM, I don’t know, it sounds like a regional association of podiatrists’. Guiltily attracted to Sequoia, who is ‘built like a tree: sturdy, lush, limby’, Scanlon also finds himself deeply intrigued by Clay, a young anarchist, believing him to be the perfect research subject. But Clay has a troubled past, and although he openly dislikes Scanlon, he quickly becomes infatuated with Naomi.
Despite being lost in the thrall of her returned nose and the birth of her child, Naomi remains scathing of Douglas—it’s the kind of place where people pay using ‘Douglas dollars’ and summer fairs are full of ‘booths selling black walnut cutting boards, redwood-burl yoga stands and gun racks’ and artists sculpting beavers out of wet sand. While Naomi clings to the belief that their new home is only temporary, she and Scanlon’s growing involvement with Sequoia and Clay weaves an increasingly tangled web of desires, beliefs, and loyalties.
While the story itself is engrossing, with its gradually tightening knots of the personal and political, Scribner’s writing is what makes The Oregon Experiment such a standout novel. He’s intent on conveying his characters’ sensory experiences, from Naomi’s devastating realisation, when her nose returns, that she doesn’t like Scanlon’s smell (‘his scalp and skin were in the dusty family: canvas stored in the basement, pages of a book pulled from a garage-sale box, a stranger’s wool sweater’) to Scanlon’s description of Sequoia’s ‘honey-dripping’ tofu pancakes (‘sort of malty. Like bark, or potting soil’) and the distinct surrounds of Oregon itself, with its lush forests, thick morning fogs, and endless rain. Scribner’s vivid rendering of his characters’ inner and outer worlds is sometimes uncomfortably intimate, drawing us deep into their hearts and minds.
Scribner undercuts the novel’s drama with sardonic wit (particularly memorable is a visit from Scanlon’s father Geoff, a former lawyer in the throes of a ‘sustained midlife crisis’ who feels compelled to share intimate details of his life in a nudist RV camp with his revolted son), and a provocative exploration of radical politics and our often skewed characterisation of its practitioners. Yes, The Oregon Experiment is full of hippies and anarchists—the stereotypes we think we know, the novelised versions of the kooks we love to snicker at on Portlandia. But appearances aren’t everything, and belief isn’t truth. Scribner’s richly detailed narrative world of sensory perception and social activism is an insightful rendering of the rewards and limitations of trying to turn idealism into reality.