Thursday, 1 February 2018

Book review: Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills (2018)

For most of its length, this book is a real page-turner, enveloping the reader in a fabulous world of failed industrial schemes and environmental carnage in the near-future. It reminded me in a very immediate way of another piece of worthwhile Australian cli-fi, Kate Legge’s 2006 ‘The Unexpected Elements of Love’, which I reviewed on this blog in September of that year. For most of its length I found it very hard to put this book down. It was compelling.

Samantha Warren is growing up in Clapstone, a regional town on the drolly-named Luck River in South Australia. It’s a hard-scrabble township with one industry, an asphalt plant operated by a company called Aspco, but when six men suicide by jumping to their deaths from a high point on the plant’s silos, the business shutters and the town is left to cope on its own. Sam had predicted the suicides, and the town’s residents attack her and Ivy, her mother, violently, even throwing bottles at their house at night. But when Sam then predicts a flood all of the townsfolk profit by taking out flood insurance and her stars suddenly align once again.

The disturbing way notable people are given accolades on social media then immediately afterward, it seems, excoriated for some perceived failing, is reflected in the cavalier manner in which the townspeople treat Sam and Ivy. You can’t win, in the public sphere, it seems, if you have a high profile. You are either the flavour of the month or else a charlatan, nothing in-between. Nothing human.

But this is not the only thing the novel serves to highlight in our contemporary world. The book is also critical of slick business types and the government. (Mills works for left-wing journal ‘Overland’.)  Into the mix enters Ed, a smooth man of balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements who is Ivy’s lover, and who hoodwinks the town into backing another scheme whose viability is predicated on insights Sam provides with her oracular visions of the future.

Ed inhabits a world of management-speak where the advantage is all in favour of the owners of capital, and the government – in the form here of the optimistically-named Department of Sustainable Communities – calls the shots but offsets risk and defrays expenses by delegating responsibility for specifics to the private enterprises who actually run things.

When the town’s seashore suddenly recedes into the distance one day when Sam is a girl of about 11, the residents are told that the town has been bought by Belemnite Enterprises, based in Uruguay. Efforts by some of them to phone the company are rendered ineffectual by the fact that the company uses a local call centre that has no discretion to do anything to address their concerns in a material way. When the town is bought by Sepia Holdings – to maintain the connection with squid and cuttlefish that snakes through the book (‘Ossi di seppia’, or ‘Cuttlefish Bones’ is a collection of poetry by Italian Nobel-laureate Eugenio Montale that was published in 1925) – there are apparently changes afoot but nothing seems to happen other than everyone receiving a form letter from the new owners.

The townspeople continue to have money to spend in the local store, but when they travel to Hummock, a bigger town nearby, they find that their debit cards don’t work at the cash registers in its supermarket. On their way out of Clapstone on this jaunt they are bureaucratically asked where they are heading by an innocuous-looking security guard with a ute and a high-vis vest who has been put there by the company to look after its investment.

The eerie shape-shifting of responsibility in the public domain that such scenes evoke with dramatic force is given a particularly ludicrous form when it turns out that Ed’s son, Ned, is actually Greg Morton, an employee of Aquifer and Ink, a sort of seismology-cum-law firm contracted to get the townspeople to move to a settlement up north where workers are needed to help launch a new community. It is hard to know where the lies end and the truth begins, and the novel shows how language is manipulated by the powerful in order to gain the advantage they need to get their plans into reality through a process of public scrutiny. “Moving forward” never sounded so threatening as it does in this novel, especially ironic in a story where the nature of the future itself is so central to the dramatic arc.

In Clapstone, the community touchingly centres around a few points of shared experience, such as the supermarket Foodtown where Ivy works, the Commercial Hotel (the local pub), and the Institute, a sort of civil-society meeting place where people converge to discuss urgent business. In this dun-coloured setting, Sam is isolated like a Quixotic adventurer within an unpredictable matrix produced by her own troublesome psyche. The migraines she experiences whenever she has a glimpse of the future do not however protect her from the secondary effects of the aspirations of people in the town. Threats lie everywhere.

It is particularly significant that Mills chooses a young girl to be her heroine in this dystopic novel where important things always seem to be decided by people or institutions that lie beyond the perimeter of the private sphere. And even this refuge is besieged because of Ed’s presence in the household, where because of Sam’s age – a big slice of the book takes place when she is aged about 14 and is still going to school – he always seems to be an implied threat simply by dint of being a sexually-viable male.

Sam therefore operates as a locus for the desires of many people for much of the time, up until the point where the narrative fails near the end. The final confrontation between Ivy and Sam, when the latter is aged about 17, is unconvincing and melodramatic. You wonder how the story went off the rails so disastrously when things had seemed to be going so well.

The novel looks inward to itself at a point about two-thirds of the way through, when this appears:
The blood was going to her head. Sam sat up quickly, and her vision clouded black. Just hunger, thirst. Making her see what she was afraid of, that was all. It was hard to sort the world into categories, certain and uncertain, real and unreal.
For a lot of the time reading this novel, it is uncertain what is what and who is who. Hunger and thirst for the individual might translate into analogous needs for the broader community, like sustenance and security and certainty. Certainty is one word the author explores for a time by trying out its shape and substance in different contexts. Things shift in form and meaning unpredictably, in the way that children probably better understand than adults, who are supposed to be in control of their destinies.

At its best, the novel is guided by this sort of poetics of the liminal, where it is the very potentialities of language and character and plot, rather than necessarily their concrete instances, that hit a sweet spot within the reader’s mind. There is so much that is implied rather than stated in this novel in vivid descriptions of ordinary things.

It shows us how we are often subject to powers outside our control, sometimes to dangerous effect. Such passages are not only memorable but gripping. The effort needed to sustain the ruse seems to have failed Mills at some point, unfortunately, and it seems to be at about the same point that Ed exits the story. If I’m even partially right, then this work becomes a Gothic novel of pursuit where existential menaces are embodied by a dominant and depraved male character.

It should be noted that Gothic novels were in the distant past often written by women, notably Mary Shelley (whose ‘Frankenstein’ appeared 200 years ago this year) and Ann Radcliffe, a contemporary of Jane Austen who achieved notoriety in her lifetime.

Montale is also an interesting point of reference for Mills to deploy because his book was a kind of manifesto that marked a turning away for Italian poets from rarefied classical themes to more common ones that ordinary people could relate to. To illustrate this, his “The lemon trees” is a masterpiece of its time, although when you read it today its images knit suggestively with others that Mills throws up in her book, especially those that deal with birds and silence. In Mills’ novel Sam’s budgies Winter and Spring escape their cage one day and fly away. The townspeople, like the wider society in which they exist, are stuck, it appears, with an endless summer.

1 comment:


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