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Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book review: Off the Record, Craig Sherborne (2018)

A comic novel is a bit of a rarity in Australian fiction these days. This one reminded me of the work of Morris Lurie (1938-2014). I remember reading his ‘Rappaport’ (1966) when I was a very young man and enjoying its sly humour. But even more potently this novel reminded me of Martin Amis’ ‘Money’ (1984) insofar as the main character is highly distasteful and in the end receives his comeuppance. With Sherborne’s invention, Callum Smith, however, the knife finally dropping barely dents his sociopathic instincts.

Callum is 48 and is married to Emma, who is two years younger, and they have a son, Oliver, who is 14 years old and struggling at secondary school. Callum is unfaithful one night with a woman in a parking lot and Emma is told and he is forced to move out of the comfortable family home, to a one-bedroom apartment located above a shop in another Melbourne suburb. Callum continues to come over to do the gardening and make Emma breakfast-in-bed, and to talk with his son. But he finds out that Emma has been seeing a man, whose name turns out to be Gordon Grace, and Callum sets Ollie to spying on his mother to find out more about Grace, who he discovers is the owner of a chain of nursing homes and lives in the tony enclave of Toorak.

Callum’s evil propensities trigger many such bizarre behaviours. One day, he uses a phone box on a suburban street to report Grace to the tax office for fraud, based on nothing more substantial than his own sense of entitlement and the malice it inspires. He also recruits a private investigator he knows named Peeko Mellich to dig up dirt on Grace. Mellich will appear at different times in the novel whenever Callum has plans that need a little extra effort to progress. In the telephone-booth scene we are shown an additional dimension of Callum’s character: he is frightened of catching some unnamed disease from the phone handpiece, which he imagines is only normally used by what Sherborne calls “deros” (short for “derelicts” in Australian slang) and drug addicts. His fussy self-regard is highlighted in this scene: he’s happy to see others suffer but is careful to make sure he gets an easy ride himself.

Callum is employed by a news website named “pry” that relies for its material on deaths and disasters. It’s definitely tabloid in its aspirations, eschewing serious subjects like politics and international affairs in favour of murder and infanticide. One reporter, Mei Tran, is relegated to the court beat, but when she sees a dead body for the first time she is physically ill. Callum thinks she doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude for the job and manipulatively informs two of the other young reporters about it.

The sobriquet “Words” is applied to Callum and has been for some time now. It is short for “wordsmith” because of his facility with language. At the beginning of the book, I wondered a bit about the author’s distance from his creation because of this conceit. From the outset Sherborne uses short, punchy sentences that I was suspicious of in the light of his hero’s nickname, especially since the author himself has worked as a journalist. I almost put the book down at one point early on but relented and I’m glad I continued because it turned out to be a very fine novel.

Professionally, Callum is just as unethical as he is in his dealings with his family. While he threatens an English teacher, named Gumm, with unspecified disaster if his news outlet turns its attention to bear on the private school where he works, in order to get the man to give his son better marks on assignments, at pry Callum ropes in a junior named Katie Brooks to organise a “stoning” at a local church. The ruse involves conscripting a local homeless person (another “dero”) named Alice to enter the church during a service and ask for money. When the congregants throw her out of the church, the journalists plan to jump in and capture the action on their mobile phones. The resulting images would constitute material for a story designed to impugn selfish motives to the church. The journalists think the story would be sure to gain a lot of clicks.

Comically, the fishing expedition fails and the congregants liberally hand Alice money. Other things don’t turn out the way the calculating Callum wants, as well, but to give away too much would be to spoil the novel for potential readers. To sum up, Callum is a manipulative, cruel, egotistical and callow creature and yet he retains the reader’s interest. This is the point where Sherborne’s true art shines through.

Callum’s propensity to create mayhem for this enemies and to smooth the way for his own plans is alarming at face value but we are aware as we are reading that what he does to an extreme degree resembles at least in kind what anyone normally does or thinks in the course of their quotidian lives. (I contemplated saying “quotidian routine” but realised that Words would comment archly on the tautology.) His efforts to succeed, for example to progress his son’s scholastic career, might be devious and unfair at first glance, but many people would do similarly grubby things on a daily basis if they could get away with them. Or at least they fantasise about it. Deep down, we are all a bit like Callum Smith.

I also thought the novel timely, in light of the way the media is dealt with on social media. If Amis’ anti-hero John Self in ‘Money’ is the ultimate Thatcherite shyster and ad-man, Callum Smith is the ultimate journo-on-the-make for the post-internet world. Social media has forever changed the nature of the public sphere, and journalists play a highly visible role in that world. The degree of vituperation aimed at journalists is often alarming, and while on the surface Callum justifies the anger they receive in such short messages, he is also something of a tonic within this matrix of meaning and sentiment where poor spelling colludes with bad grammar to unmask the ignorant and uninformed.

His struggles in life are just as mundane and prosaic as anyone else’s but the difference is that he belongs to the same breed of professional that hacked into the phone account of murdered English schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Given his talents and the opportunities offered by his position, many people in the broader community would readily make the same choices in life he does.

Journalists are on the back foot globally because of the way the internet has disrupted their industry, and because of the US president’s popular “fake news” epithet. They need a little moral support, and the strength of characterisation and quality of plotting that you find in this wonderful book serves that purpose.

Back in May 2008 I favourably reviewed Sherborne’s memoir ‘Hoi Polloi’ (2005) and my reading of the new novel reinforces the vivid impression I received at that time, so long ago now it seems, of real talent. Sherborne was born in the same year I was and he went to Scots College in Bellevue Hill, just up the road from Cranbrook, where I was at school. He also lived with his parents after they migrated from New Zealand in Vaucluse, where I lived with my family. His mother probably visited the gift shop my mother and grandmother operated in Vaucluse shopping centre.

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