Wayne Macauley is the author of The Cook, a dark and funny satire which I read and reviewed a year or so ago just as Macauley was starting to gain an international profile, but I have had Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe and Caravan Story on my TBR for ages. I bought them when I heard that Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe was included in Year 12 reading lists and I was intrigued by the title.
I enjoyed The Cook but I found that Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe was a more thought-provoking book. I finished it two books ago and (apart from the fact that I’ve been AWOL online this week due to some pressing commitments) this absurdist novella’s been swirling around in my brain bothering me ever since I finished it at half past one in the morning on Monday night (which hasn’t helped with the pressing commitments). Like The Cook, Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe is a satire, one which attacks the sacrosanct Great Australian Home Ownership Dream, and Macauley uses lashings of black humour to make his point. It’s deeply unsettling.
Narrated by Bram, the story takes the reader to a strange alternative society that has formed in a satellite housing development marooned beyond the outskirts of Melbourne. Originally planned as a model suburb, the development stalled because a promised freeway and fuel subsidy failed to materialise, so the car-dependant projected population never materialised either. Before long nearly all of the residents leave because the place is unliveable: no transport links, miles from anywhere, and almost nothing in the way of amenities such as parks, schools, medical services, shops or eateries so there are no local jobs to be had.
But a small core of disgruntled residents remain, obstinately clinging to the belief that the promised freeway will be built and their dreams restored. As the development decays, the situation becomes macabre: there is no electricity; a failed sewage system produces a foul stench; the streets are filthy, and vandals from the nearest town do the moronic things that vandals usually do. Into this profoundly unaesthetic environment Macauley places a motley collection of characters who form a bizarre little community.
I hesitate to call the setting gothic. I associate gothic settings with ancient ruins and creeping vegetation, gloomy nightscapes and eerie noises. But ur, a name with doomed Sumerian associations by which the Outer Suburban Village Development Complex comes to be known when its signage fades, seems too barren for that. The only ghost is the town itself.
There is not much character development: Vito, Dave, Slug, Michael, Alex, Nanna and Craig are there to fulfil a role. Vito is the catalyst: he plants a vegie patch and shares the produce. Dave brews the beer; Slug the real-estate agent who failed to make a killing runs a makeshift bar, Nanna has an improbable flower shop. Craig is lovelorn – he uses the sole phone box to forge a long-distance relationship with Marie-Claire in France.
But it’s one-eyed Michael the former fencer who has the most arresting characterisation. Ironically for a place that causes so much grief because it’s been forgotten, it’s when someone remembers ur’s existence that the real trouble starts. Deeply cynical government attempts to remove this blot on the landscape become the catalyst for Michael’s transition from simple weirdo to shocking psychopath and it’s very unnerving, especially when he becomes a sort of Ned Kelly character, defying all attempts to apprehend him. To keep the bulldozers out, a massive wall is built using bricks from the abandoned houses, reinforcing the anarchic collective’s isolation from reality. The breakdown of their society is vaguely reminiscent of Camus’ The Plague; but it’s not as nihilistic because there is a yearning for meaning and connectedness that goes beyond the chaos.
Bram’s narrative voice is weary and his reflections encapsulate the malaise and lack of initiative that keeps these characters marooned in their self-imposed misery. Eventually he falls for Jodie, Michael’s daughter who turns up out of the blue and – remarkably – decides to stay. But it doesn’t make him happy because nothing can. (And IMO unwisely, Macauley reveals her death on the very first page of the novel).
You can read a sample chapter at Black Pepper, the publishers who took a leap of faith to bring out this edgy book, proving once again that it’s Melbourne’s indie publishers who are often the most courageous.
Reviews are hard to find online but you can see excerpts from some of them at the Black Pepper website. I notice some of them stumbling over an apt label for this work. An allegory maybe, but not a fable (because fables use animals, and less often, plants, non-living things and forces of nature as characters to teach a moral) and not a parable (because a parable uses metaphor to make a single, unambiguous point for the purposes of moral instruction). (See Wikipedia).
Author: Wayne Macauley
Title: Blueprints For A Barbed-Wire Canoe
Cover drawings by Ian Bracegirdle
Publisher: Black Pepper, 2005
ISBN: 1 876044 42 X
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Mountain Books Mentone
NB: The original edition published by Black Pepper Publishing isn’t available any more; Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe is now published by Text with the cover at left.
Fishpond: Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe