Thursday, 27 September 2018

Book review: The Lebs, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (2018)

It’s not quite clear what this book actually is. It has something about it of the proto-realist novels of the 18th century that we refer to as “picaresque”, in which the hero sets out on a journey in the countryside, encountering adventures along the way, until the point at which he reaches his destination and everything is finally and neatly resolved.

I didn’t get that far; I read about 15 percent of the book before giving up. What is certain is that there is very little structure in this novel, and little that keeps anything like a plot ticking along reliably so that different characters can grow and develop, and so finally deliver a message to the waiting reader. Anything as basic as a plot is entirely absent and in that void what we are given instead is a series of unconnected episodes each of which contains more or less drama than the one that came before, and that conveys a message in one form or another.

There is also no evidence that the author understands exactly what is distinct and unique about the hybrid of his ancestral culture as it exists in what appears to his classmates to be the wilderness of Sydney’s western suburbs. There is no irony or humour to militate against the crushing recalcitrance of the students in this high school, their bad behaviour and unwillingness to get a useful education. Their adolescent jokes at the expense of long-suffering teachers are not critiqued as the modulated violence that they really are. And the narrator might be able to recite passages of Faulkner or Nabokov in an effort to impress his teacher, but it’s furthermore not clear that the stylistic achievements that their works contain have been understood by him even partially.

It’s all very ad-hoc and premature, the praise that the Australian literary elites have given to this author, who seems to identify completely with the badly-behaved crop of students who are being taught by the beleaguered staff at the school he attends, but at the same time seems to have little idea what it might mean to actually command respect for the knowledge you might gain through education. Ahmad’s voice might conceivably be authentic but his is yet an incomplete talent.

The lack of insight the project at its most basic level evinces dulls the effect of this sort of book. It has been published presumably so that readers might, blindly but in good faith, spend their money to acquire some knowledge about the culture that produced it. But more work is needed. I give it a score of five out of ten.

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