An interesting title, eh? This is Wayne Macauley’s fourth satire – perhaps not in the same league as The Cook (see my review) – but nonetheless an ambitious book in its intent and execution.
Like The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, the novel is framed around the idea of storytelling. A group of friends set off for a weekend away at a coastal hideaway somewhere along the Great Ocean Road: they’ve left their phones and other techno-toys at home but have brought a plentiful supply of booze and the makings of comfort-food meals. Macauley brings his characters together on a cold Winter weekend where the old friends’ plan is to reconnect with each other by telling each other stories.
Yes, it’s to be a talkfest. This is the generation that came to adulthood in the long shadow of the Baby Boomers. Before long they have a roaring fire going, but really they don’t need it. It may be bitterly cold outside but this lot generates enough hot air all by themselves.
The novel takes a while to get going. There are seven characters to be introduced and some argy-bargy to sort out: who sleeps where, will the stories have titles and so on. A lot of this is banal, and the writing is rather plain.
Megan and Evan took the main bedroom, with the view of the sea. The other rooms were down the hallway past the bathroom with the view up through the trees. The latecomers got the bedroom downstairs. After everyone had unloaded their stuff and dropped the bags of food and drink in a row on the kitchen floor, Megan suggested a walk. The dark was coming down. She and Lauren, then Leon and Hannah, put on their hats and coats and scarves. Put the meat in the fridge! said Lauren from the bottom of the stairs.
Evan found the cooler bag with the beer in it and twisted the top off two. Are you into this? he said. Adam put his beer on the bench and started unpacking the meat. I reckon we should have themes, said Evan, like politics or the environment or technology or love or something, otherwise everyone’s just going to rabbit on about any old crap. We should write down half-a-dozen and put them in a hat then someone chooses one and we tell stories about that. Then, it we’ve got the energy, we choose another one later.
They unloaded the shopping and went into the living room. It was warm in there now. At one end was a big set of windows and a sliding glass door that opened onto the balcony that looked out over the treetops to the sea. Two couches, four big armchairs and in the centre a low table of sea-worn timber with a stack of magazines and picture books on it. (p. 4)
Truth be told, this kind of pared-back writing puts me in mind of assessing student work. Year 5 or 6? Perhaps Year 7? Pedestrian vocabulary; a grammatical clanger (everyone i.e. singular, talking a plural possessive i.e. their); too-casual expressions (stuff, any old crap); no punctuation to signal speech, and an almost complete absence of adjectives to create atmosphere. Big is used twice in the same paragraph – but ah! there is also sea-worn – the one word that signals that Macauley has written in this pedestrian style for a purpose. It’s still a pain to read, IMO, but it serves to draw the reader’s attention to the adolescent nature of these middle-aged adults.
Eventually a story-telling stick (a piece of driftwood) is produced and Lauren begins her tale, Woman Killed by a Falling Man.
Depending on your taste for short stories, these stories within a story will hold your attention or not. They are, of course, linked by Macauley’s design, and they have a confessional significance not immediately apparent to the listeners. The reader is less naïve, because (quite apart from the hints in the back-cover-blurb) the behaviour of the characters sends small signals too. The revelation when it comes is therefore not much of a surprise, and although the dénouement executed by the interloper is unexpected, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. Macauley is more interested in drawing attention to how this generation responds to it. Make a fuss because it makes you feel good to let your anger out? Or move on, because it’s nicer for everybody if you do? The response is, crucially, not about morality or ethics. It’s about personal satisfaction.
The character who best exemplifies this facile attitude is Marshall. The back story isn’t revealed until the end of the novel, but Marshall explains that his late arrival and the absence of his wife Jackie is because her brother has committed suicide. He, however, has decided to come down anyway. By any standard this is selfish behaviour, to abandon a wife in this situation. It doesn’t conform to social niceties either. It’s a spectacular example of individual desire trumping every other consideration. Marshall has also reneged on the terms of the weekend contract by bringing his teenage daughter, because she wanted to come, reinforcing other anecdotes that show this generation failing parenthood because it’s too hard.
At times Demons seems more like a lament for a lost generation than a satire.
There’s something a bit sad about us, isn’t there? said Adam. Us? said Lauren. I mean, how we’ve only ever danced across the surface, had everything our own way, free education, free dole, no wars, no revolutions. We’ve not lived to the limit of human experience, we’ve moved in a little circle. We’ve looked out for ourselves, not others, and if we do make some big magnanimous gesture there’s always something a bit calculating about it. Even when we’re listening to another person’s cares and woes, aren’t we actually thinking about ourselves?
Stop talking, she said, and she rolled over and pulled the covers up to her chin. We’re pragmatists, said Adam, idealism’s not our thing. No, said Lauren.
Adam lay listening to the sea. (p. 81)
Only one of the characters stays sober. Leon, Megan’s younger brother, is a recovering alcoholic who had beaten the grog with naturopathy, meditation and yoga and the cure had clung to him almost as persistently as the disease. He tells a story about a public servant turned radical activist, exemplifying the death of idealism and the growth of expediency. Through mash-ups of Chekhovian drama these radicals try to sell their message to the self-satisfied bourgeoisie who will not listen: as if up in the sky, the sound of a broken string. (p. 101).
Leon mourns these winds of change:
Nothing changes anything, said Leon. They all looked at him. The power’s elsewhere, he said, always has been – but no one knows where elsewhere is. It might have been the politicians once, a long time ago. Writers and artists once had power to change things. People say it’s business now, global corporations, the media, the new media – but I don’t believe that either. They’re powerless too, they’re chasing an idea of power that even they know is elsewhere. People power? Nah. I don’t believe it; no left-winger can believe it after what’s happened to Soviet Russia. Maybe that’s power’s natural property, said Leon, to coagulate, concentrate. Stalin. Mao. Pol Pot. Mugabe. The excitable energy and goodwill of the people, that great maelstrom of peopleness, all that fantastic fire is eventually distilled into a single despot. Maybe by its very nature power can’t be a spread out thing. And that was the trouble, for someone like me, a journalist with a conscience: no one changed anything unless he or she was lucky enough to be the one who became a despot, the right person in the right place at the right time in whom all that power was held. So no, Megan, or Adam, sorry, stories change nothing. (p. 157)
This pseudo-nihilism might just have well have been delivered with a glass of Heathcote shiraz in hand – it oozes self-pity. Of course the stories are told with Macauley’s trademark absurdity, culminating in Adam’s story Home which riffs on the selfishness of childlessness, but as prophets, these characters are too shallow to be taken seriously, and drunk or not, they know that themselves. Like Dostoevsky who in Demons a.k.a. The Possessed critiqued both the radicals and the conservatives, Macauley savages the ideologies of his generation by satirising their disillusionment and discontent.
It’s a departure in style from his previous novels: more black, rather sour.
Author: Wayne Macauley
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing