Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 1, 2016

The World Repair Video Game, by David Ireland #BookReview

the-world-repair-video-gameOh, words fail me when I try to describe the experience of reading this book. With no disrespect intended, I have to say that words failed the judges when they shortlisted it for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards too.  This is what they said:

The publication of David Ireland’s The World Repair Video Game, his first novel to appear in almost 20 years, is something of a literary event. It confirms, above all, that the imaginative powers of this three-time Miles Franklin Award winner remain undiminished. The novel is framed in the form of a journal or diary written by 42-year old Kennard Stirling. Though born to a wealthy Sydney family, Stirling now chooses to spend his days living a modest and solitary existence, with his dog Jim, in a small coastal town in NSW. The novel covers just a few brief months in his life, recording his largely uneventful days spent planting trees, and helping out the town’s elderly residents—mowing their lawns, delivering meals, or ferrying them to medical appointments.

Occasionally, the darker side of Stirling’s character surfaces, as he pursues his unconventional scheme to regenerate the landscape of his bushland property on Big Hill. Then there is the voice of Pym, which habitually interjects itself into Stirling’s narrative, and which may be an element of Stirling’s consciousness, or may be something else entirely. David Ireland’s novel, shot through with philosophical asides, irony and dark humour, ultimately presents a bleak vision of our modern world. While Stirling’s response to the realities of economic rationalism, community breakdown and environmental degradation, is blatantly absurd, his strategies to repair the world ultimately present themselves as beyond good and evil. In a novel largely devoid of conventional character and storytelling, David Ireland has given us a complex, challenging and deeply committed work.

The judges wanted to avoid spoilers.  But in doing so, they have failed to convey just how enthralling this book is.  So I’m going to reveal the spoiler you will recognise for yourself by the time you get to page 2.  You have been warned!

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The World Repair Video Game is the story of a serial killer, narrated by the warped mind of Kennard Stirling, aged 42, and living in a country town in NSW, doing odd jobs as a volunteer while living off the income of his wealthy family.

He’s an odd-bod and a loner, always has been, as the reader can tell from the memories he recalls in his daily diary: scenes with his parents and siblings, scenes that show that he had difficulty relating to people from the start but that (like most parents who have a child who is ‘different’) his mother and father accept him for what he is.  His father is okay with him leaving school without a qualification or a desire to work in the family business; he quotes his mother saying (more than once) “You can’t help it, it’s how you are”;  and his sister Simone teases him about some of his opinions.  But he has no contact with them except through occasional correspondence.  He has had a relationship with a woman called Leonora but it has failed, and throughout the novel the reader feels a level of anxiety about her whereabouts…

His best friend is Jim, his dog, not the only example of anthropomorphism in Kennard’s life.  He also attributes emotions and intentions to his ute, Brian; to his stiletto, Ott; and Big Manna (his tree).  He is obsessively tidy and very well-organised.  His anarchy, he says, is orderly.

Significantly, Kennard shares the opinions and attitudes of some of our not-so-beloved political leaders.  He is particularly exercised by the prevalence of a sense of entitlement and although he doesn’t use the notorious phrase lifters and leaners few readers will fail to recognise the rhetoric of a certain treasurer.  Although Kennard rejects the consumerist values of his super-rich family and is concerned that we have moved beyond a market economy into a market society, he has absorbed the work ethic of his parents and believes that everyone should work or give back to the community in some way.  That’s ok, most of us feel like that – up to a point, and where that point lies is a place along a moral and humane continuum.  So the reader nods approvingly at Kennard using his privileged position of not needing to work, to do voluntary work in his community: mowing the lawns of the elderly, taking them to medical appointments, delivering meals-on-wheels, clearing out gutters.  Although he listens to the people he helps, and recounts in his diary the ways in which they contributed to society through the work they did, he keeps them at arm’s length, never calling them by their first names.

But Kennard rejects the idea of equality altogether:

If all were equal and of equal value, there would be no movement, the population would set like concrete.  No one with eyes to see  can maintain the fiction of equality as actuality.  (p. 120)

And he has an absurdist solution to the problem of society having to support people who have no value:

Markets, careers, bureaucrats, solidarity with others, none of these are for me.  Free society can never be perfect, busy conscientious humans must be allowed their imperfections.  My modest aim, while keeping mostly to myself, is to repair the world around me in small ways.  Make it better.  Adjust it, so it’s better to live in. Not perfection, but more tidy around the edges.  (p.15)

His method of ‘adjusting it’ is to dispose of the wastrels who drift into his town, getting rid of the outliers.  He identifies them by the birds he sees sitting on their heads, encourages them to reveal how they manage the welfare system so as to avoid work, and justifies what he does to them by rejecting their ‘entitlement’ view of the world:

I reflect about yesterday and Turpie.  Here is another follower of the mendicant Jesus, without the doctrines.  He lobs somewhere, anywhere, and all is paid for.  Like Jesus he has no property or possessions and no dwelling place.  Is this social justice? Ryle‘s fairness?  He’s coddled for doing nothing, he takes, never gives.  This is not a fair go to all the others who make an effort to keep the social machine in motion.  Where is Donald H. and his Avenue of the Fair Go?  I exist for myself, persons like Turpie are outliers on the world’s graph.  (p. 112)

(You might say, with some justification, that denying welfare benefits to young unemployed people for an entire six months, would inevitably result in some of them dying, if not of illness or malnutrition, then from suicide.  So absurdist solutions to reducing the welfare budget do exist, at least in the minds of some politicians).

Yes, this is a creepy book, not least because Kennard has some attractive characteristics.  He is kind to the old people he works for, even anonymously providing a substantial loan to help one of them.  He has the habits of cultured people: he listens to Mozart and Berlioz; he recognises quotations from Heraclitus; he references Lucian Freud and Emily Dickenson; Montaigne and Magritte; Hobbes on vegetarianism and even President Obama.  He is at home on his bush block, lovingly describing the bird and animal life, exulting in the sunsets and the changing weather, and spending long hours working hard at regenerating the soil damaged by careless overstocking.  He doesn’t hesitate to join in fighting a grassfire that endangers the town (where the reader discovers that there are more than a few conspiracy theorists amongst the townsfolk).

Kennard himself is very anti-government, and goes to some personal inconvenience to be able to continue to help his old folk once new regulations for volunteers come into force.

Tomorrow is meals day.  I’ll need to alter my method of delivery, since government bureaucrats have clamped new regulations on us volunteers.  We’ll need to provide photocopies of licences, registrations, read a manual, attend training sessions, sign statements, pass tests, sign codes of conduct and confidentiality.  That’s for the birds, I’ll put on no government chains, the folk can ring me.  I’ll take them to the charity building, they can pick up their meals and I’ll take them home.

What genius came up with the revenue-shrinking madness?  How many staff will be hired to handle the paperwork but do nothing productive? (p. 185)

With a mounting sense of horror, the reader learns to recognise Kennard’s signs of ‘restlessness’ but also to note the occasional hint that the justice he regards as an ‘inconvenience’ might be closing in.  As the pages turn towards the end of the book, there’s a sense of hope that this madness will come to an end.  You’ll have to read the book yourself to see how Ireland resolves it.

Absurdist as this novel is, Ireland, it seems to me, is suggesting that when political rhetoric abandons humanitarian impulses, there is a chilling inevitability about devaluing some lives.  There is a horrible moment when Kennard observes a child who is intellectually disabled, and ponders his options…

I am very much indebted to Tony from Messenger’s Booker for the opportunity to read this book, a limited edition hardback publisher by Island Magazine.  When it was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award (*chuckle* surely without the PM reading it!) Tony very kindly sent me a copy.

Author: David Ireland
Title: The World Repair Video Game
Publisher: Island Magazine, 2015
ISBN: 9780994490100, copy 277 of 350

Availability

Now sold out.  But Library Link’s Zportal reveals that there are 10 Victorian libraries that had the foresight to buy a copy.  (Mine, alas not among them).  So in Victoria at least, copies are available through inter-library loan.


Responses

  1. […] but it was a limited edition and with postage as well, too expensive for my budget) #update 1/12/16 see my review, thanks to the generosity of Tony from Messenger’s Booker Quicksand, Steve Toltz,  Hamish […]

  2. […] with postage as well, too expensive for my budget), see the review at the SMH.  Update 1/12/16, see my review, thanks to the generosity of Tony from Messenger’s Booker Quicksand, Steve Toltz,  Hamish […]

  3. You’ve sold me! *heads to the library*

    As is often the case, wanting to say all you can about how great a book is leads into spoiler territory – that’s where we rely on the good judgement and endorsement of other bloggers.

    • I can’t wait to see what you think of this!

  4. I was once a big fan of David Ireland, especially his earlier works, so I’m willing to give this a go, though I might borrow it rather than risk my own hard-earned.

    • Well, in the spirit of sharing my good fortune, I’ll lend you mine. I’ll hand it over when you come to Melbourne, ok?

  5. […] Kindly loaned to me by Lisa at ANZLL, her review here. […]

  6. I have just finished the book and enjoyed it just as much as I enjoyed “The Glass Canoe” – a lot. But why the limited edition? I paid quite a lot of money to someone who had bought a copy and was selling it on at a profit, so Mr Ireland saw none of my cash. Why doesn’t he publish this book and also “Desire” on the Web? That way he would at least get some reward and his readers could have easier access to his works. Anyway I very much hope he continues writing.

    • Hello Paul, I think he couldn’t find any other publisher who was interested, and Island Magazine is a very small outfit and probably couldn’t afford to take a risk on a bigger print run. I’m sad to hear that people are profiteering on it.

  7. Hi Lisa, I read “The Glass Canoe” in a Kindle edition, so I don’t understand why “Desire” (and “World Repair”) couldn’t be published the same way and avoid printing costs. Or, if Island printed say 500 copies of “Desire”, I’m sure they would sell out quickly. If any of you are in touch with Mr Ireland, I wish you would put it to him.

    • Hello again, Paul, I don’t know about these decisions at all, I’m afraid. I do know that The Glass Canoe was published as a Text Classic, and they are a bigger outfit than Island, and Text routinely do eBook editions of their publications. I don’t understand why Island didn’t go down that route when The World Repair Video Game was nominated for the Miles Franklin, and that would have been the time to do it, in the wake of all that publicity.


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