Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2011

8 States of Catastrophe (2011), by Karenlee Thompson

8 States of Catastrophe8 States of Catastrophe is a debut novel written by Karenlee Thompson whose work I discovered when she began commenting and then writing guest reviews on this blog.  The book is an intriguing read, one that defies easy classification.

It traces the picaresque adventures of MV (Mozart Vincent), a motorcycle-riding psychic poet, and his sidecar companion, a black Labrador named Rider, as they travel around Australia.  That psychic talent isn’t one MV really wants: he wants to put distance between himself and those he thinks he’s failed to warn.  It isn’t until he reconciles his ideas about destiny with acceptance that all of us bear individual responsibility for our own fate – chalking up karma good and bad through our own choices – that he stops running away from himself, his failed relationships and his burden.

Karenlee’s strength is a gift for quirky characterisation and witty dialogue, and in this respect the novel reminds me of recent ABC comedy-drama series such as East of Everything and Bed of Roses.  These shows are light-hearted, romantic and funny, but they also have their dark moments and they’re not simplistic.  They succeed because of great Aussie characterisation and effective dialogue, and the relationships feature an independent woman and that much-loved staple of Australian comedy-drama, the laconic Aussie male in search of a mate though he knows it not.  (Indeed, I think Richard Roxborough is a natural for the part of MV.  Rider may be harder to cast).

Our first encounter with MV is a fleeting glimpse, when he transforms the life of Maxine, marooned in a dead marriage, with a boring job in a place she despises.

It seemed to her that they very existence of Canberra was some sort of cruel Aussie joke.  There was a fine Antipodean irony in hating government officials so much that you’d shove them all in an eight hundred and five square kilometre area, enclose them with a line on a map, and stamp the area ‘ACT’. (p3)

Destinies collide when, out with the kids, she

…stopped in the middle of the footpath, right outside the entrance to their apartment block.  Parked directly beneath the streetlamp was an unusual old motorcycle and there, sitting rigid in its sidecar, was a big black dog wearing a red cowboy kerchief, looking for all the world like a comedic extra in a western blockbuster. (p8)

What is that advice they give to lonely young men in search of a love life?  Take a cute dog out for a walk and see how conversations start on the street? That’s not MV’s agenda, but the dog provides the trigger for MV to quote some transcendental poetry with some family-shattering effects: ‘Lost lives enliven’ indeed!

MV’s mother Anjellica is an exasperating eccentric, but he takes her in his stride.  It is her habit to ‘diss’ an entire city if things go wrong for her there, so when her talk-show in America fails to knock Oprah off her perch, her options are limited.  Where to next, if Brisbane or Perth are too small for her ambitions, and Sydney is a ‘cesspool of filth and depravity’ and Melbourne is the ‘home of gossipmongers that tear at the fabric of innocent lives’? (p158).  It’s interesting to see how Anjellica sorts out her relationships along with her postcode.

I was temporarily nonplussed when reality was tweaked and MV mysteriously found himself in a mystic retreat in the Outback, a place not on any maps, its existence kept secret by mutual agreement of all its visitors. The oasis is peopled by a mob of Aboriginal artists, a sexy woman called Suzanne who makes MV revise his ideas about romance, and an enigmatic wise man known to all as Uncle.   But – like much-loved Joanne Harris’s Chocolat which has elements of magic realism too –  this is the sort of story where the reader just has to go along for the ride, and the setting somehow becomes convincing.   This place exists because MV so badly wants to connect with his dead father who spoke of it in a dream, and in the logic of the novel, it works.

I think I probably missed some of the jokes that drew on popular culture.  When Anjellica and her boyfriend brought their reality show Aussie Rules! to the small screen, there were allusions to The Footy Show (which I’ve never seen), and I think the show was based on an eliminate-the-competitors Big Brother format (which I’ve also never seen).  To complete a trifecta of popular culture failings on my part, I didn’t know who Leonard Cohen was either, but I gather from the lyrics in the video below that his songs can have a sentimental effect.  After all, although it’s far from the romance genre, this book is a story of love and desire.

My favourite character is Daniella of the Nine Lives and ‘impressive cleavage’.  She is a wonderful creation, (and Toni Collette is a natural for the part).  Daniella’s capacity for choosing the wrong bloke but rebounding as a survivor allows for some very funny but also poignant scenes.

More than poignant, however are some unexpectedly dark moments as other catastrophes unfold.  The story of Carmel’s revenge strayed a little too closely to real-life crime for my taste, even though the episode is clearly a work of the imagination.  However it’s these dramatic contrasts of dark and light which tie the snapshots together in surprising ways. It seems to me that the premonitions that MV has are those which people living in a complex modern society fear. That loose allusion that kept teasing me from the book’s title,  the idea of Six Degrees of Separation, is what binds the threads of the story.

There’s a large cast of characters and an intricate plot to control, but Karenlee has woven an entertaining novel out of it.   I liked my last book, Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm  but it was nice to relax and enjoy something a bit less demanding than White’s modernist enigmas!

Karen’s next novel is a psychological thriller.  She blogs at Karenlee Thompson, and you can find out more about her at Meet an Aussie Author here on this blog.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Karenlee Thompson
Title: 8 States of Catastrophe
Publisher: Brolga Publishing 2011
ISBN: 9781921596551
Source: Review copy by courtesy of the author.


Fishpond: 8 States of Catastrophe or direct from Karenlee’s website (Paypal).


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