Saturday, 22 March 2008

In Andrew Hutchinson's Rohypnol (the title is the name of a notorious date-rape drug), the keen flicker of brutally-short sentences in the opening - and which continues for much of the book's length - is replaced, after the arrests begin, by lyrical, multi-clause sentences.

Hutchinson is astute. His novel is about, several chapters tell us, The New Punk. This cute label disguises, the author tells us, a ferocious reality, a reality grounded in the always-on Internet with its spectacular mountain of porn (for all tastes; visible pubic hair is, now, an exotic feature in some sites).

It also draws strength from the strenuous quest for wealth. Who has not heard about mortgage stress, and too-high entry prices on property in the capital cities, its entry-level concommittant?

Money is available to the boys in the novel. They have access to plenty, and no need for parental assistance in this area. They despise their overworked and under-cultured parents, so there is no effective role model. They are dogs off the leash.

Where they roam is around Melbourne's clubs and pubs. Recent months have brought news in metropolitan centres of convictions where men without the patience or drive to score using legitimate means, force themselves on unsuspecting females. Rohypnol is a worst-case scenario.

But, then again, we're all aware of the Bilal Skaf rampage. His victim, Tegan Wagner, has even published a book about her experiences. There's also the case of Dudley Mark Aslett (uncle) and Steven James Aslett (nephew). The two men entered an apartment in Newington (the suburb created out of the Sydney Olympic Village), tied up the Chinese parents of a 16-year-old girl, and raped her.

"I read the news today, oh boy..." There are some echoes in Rohypnol pointing to other rapes and occupations (possibly the European settlement of New South Wales) but they do not survive a first reading. This suggests to me that Hutchinson is still developing.

In a recent movie, Lust, Caution (based on the 1979 novella by Eileen Chang), marquee film desperado Ang Lee develops themes of occupation and deceit by focusing his attention squarely on the story of underground operative Mrs Mak (Tang Wei) and detested Japanese collaborator Mr Yee (Tony Leung).

In the film, Lee extends the dominant themes of occupation, deceit and desire from the domestic (the sexual affair between gorgeous Mrs Mak and powerful Mr Yee) to the political (Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s). Even individual scenes of lovemaking are redolent with notions that bleed across the boundary between the two spheres: the domestic bleeds into the political, and vice versa.

But in Hutchinson's book, the salient concept (The New Punk) remains restricted to a series of encounters between the young men (boys really) and the women they target. It is a purely urban affair.

This is a shame. On the other hand, the use of the name Uncle for one of the men seems to point directly to the Newington crimes.

Another great movie that goes further than Hutchinson does is Craig Monahan's 1998 The Interview, in which a suspect is interrogated by police for hours until, finally, he is released. As in Hutchinson's work, we know he was involved (deeply involved).

As in Hutchnson's book, too, we grow to like the culprit, despite knowing he has introduced terrible brutality to innocent victims.

Perhaps the ghost of Ned Kelly and the haunting refrain from Waltzing Matilda have infected our collective imagination to the extent that we, by default, sympathise with the criminal. "Australians all let us rejoice / For we are young and free..."

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