Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 26, 2018

Relatively Famous, by Roger Averill #BookReview

As I noted in Meet an Aussie Author, Relatively Famous is Roger Averill’s fourth book, and his second novel.  Especially interesting to anyone who likes literary biographies (as I do) it explores Averill’s long-held preoccupation with biographical ‘truth’, and it also mines the fraught territory of unsatisfactory father-son relationships.

The book is cunningly constructed with contrasting narratives.  Michael Madigan’s introspective anxieties about his desultory life and hapless career is offset by ‘excerpts’ from a (fictional) upbeat biography of Michael’s father Gil, a celebrity expat Australian author and a potential Nobel Prize winner.  The biography is a brick of a book, and – trading on Gil Madigan’s celebrity – its author Sinclair Hughes is interviewed on national TV, while the book is lauded in the quality press.  Yet despite its exhaustive resources, all neatly catalogued in the excerpted ‘acknowledgements’ by Hughes, the biography fails to reveal the true Gil because both Michael and his mother Marj both refused to have anything to do with it.

Their refusal is partly due to loyalty to Gil Madigan’s long-standing position on literary biographies.  In an article in The Paris Review, Gil says that a writer’s limited truths [are created] from smaller, more manageable worlds than the ones they live in.  These imagined worlds are free from the uglier truths that injure us and those we love. But those worlds are also remote from the everyday life of the writer:

…literary biographies leach imagination from the creative process as they attempt to return a work of art to the quotidian experience that inspired it.  That just seems dumb to me.

But the more general problem is that there’s nothing left to be said about the lives of writers.  More than most, we live uneventful existences.  […]

We spend our working days sitting in rooms making up stories.  What does it matter if the desk we sit at is made of oak or chipboard, if the room has a view, or that the words are written in pen or tapped out like lines of ants marching across a computer screen? Does it make any difference, add a scintilla of artistic value to In Daniel’s Den for the reader to know who I was sleeping with at the time it was written?

The trouble begins when people mistake a writer’s wit and wisdom on the page for how he actually talks and conducts himself in life. (p.235)

(Do note the irony of the photo of Roger’s desk in his profile at Meet an Aussie Author!)

Michael Madigan couldn’t contribute to the biography even if he wanted to:  Gil had abandoned his family after he won the Booker and Michael was only ever a footnote to his famous father’s life.  Sinclair Hughes makes no mention of either Michael or his mother Marj in the biography, as if they didn’t exist. The reader of Relatively Famous learns a different truth about Gil Madigan from his son’s first person account of the impact of his mostly absent father.  Michael’s dawning awareness that his father had no qualms about using him when it suited (as Gil also exploited Marj to support him in his early writing career) results not in well-deserved anger or recriminations but in insecurities, false steps in life, and a palpable sense of failure.

The triumph of this novel is the authoritativeness of the faux biography that weaves its way though Michael’s account of his life.  The fictional Gil Madigan becomes in the reader’s mind an author every bit as real and compelling as Peter Carey or Patrick White.  The biography links the themes of the Madigan novels with events in that author’s life, so convincingly that one might almost head off to Goodreads to add them to the wishlist.

Equally successful is the way that Relatively Famous draws an empathetic response to Michael’s inadequacies.  Drifting into an unimpassioned career as a teacher because he feels diminished in any attempt to emulate his father’s creativity with either music or paintbrush, Michael’s sole success in life was his marriage until it failed.  Deciding that being a better father than his own could compensate, he rubs up against his children’s adolescence.  He could have been the ultimate loser but somehow his disarming honesty and his self-deprecations elevate him in the reader’s mind.  He just always seems to draw the short straw, and even his efforts to assuage loneliness fail because of his keen self-awareness.  After a boozy night with a muso from his past, he realises that the promises they make are doomed:

We talked of getting together for a jam, of forming a new band, of keeping in touch.  Both of us knew none of it would happen.  Catching up had been great, but we were ghosts from each other’s pasts, haunting the present only as conduits for memories.  To meet again would be to make a future, and that would risk ruining what we had.  By your fifties, memories are like savings in a bank, securities of self to be husbanded, not squandered on long-odds speculations.  Already I could envisage a time when my only future would be to look back on my past. I didn’t want that sullied by a misplaced attempt to recapture my youth in late middle age (p.186-7)

There is much else in this book: as foreshadowed by Tony Thompson at the book’s launch, as well as the exploration of celebrity, masculinity, fatherhood and the grief of divorce, there are themes of betrayal, loss and loyalty, and also commentary about social media impeding relationships. Relatively Famous is not a page-turner, but rather a thoughtful book that offers much on which to reflect.

There are reading group notes available from Transit Lounge.

Author: Roger Averill
Title: Relatively Famous
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2018
ISBN: 9780995409897
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: Relatively Famous or direct from Transit Lounge.


Responses

  1. Am currently reading this one, and enjoying it very much. I’ll meet Roger next week, at a ‘First Chapters’ event at Brunswick Bound, so am trying to formulate some half intelligent thoughts about biography. You’ve helped me with this great review!

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    • It’s such an interesting topic! As Karen says below, how can we ever know anyone even in our f2f lives, so how can the hapless biographer hope for truthfulness? If I were on a panel and had to answer that question, I think I would say to lighten up: a biographer isn’t/can’t aim for the ‘truth’ because it’s not knowable. But a biographer can sift and sort; make intelligent guesses, and produce a life story that is credible, authentic and interesting, and I don’t think we should get too hung up about expecting anything more.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the sound of this one a lot, Lisa. Especially as it plays with the idea of biography and the like – since all we know about the people around us is so subjective and based on what people allow us to know, I wonder how truthful any biography is ever going to be? :)

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    • Well, as I’ve said above to Michelle, I don’t think we can expect the truth, not even in autobiography. Maybe especially not in autobiography!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the ideas underlying this book – relationships between sons and fathers, truth in fiction, misleading non-fiction. I hope it’s well done, I might give it a try.

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    • I can vouch for the fact that it’s well done, Bill:)

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  4. […] author of the compelling and insightful novel, Relatively Famous. As Lisa at ANZ Litlovers says in her excellent review, “it explores Averill’s long-held preoccupation with biographical ‘truth’, and it also […]

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  5. Lovely review! x

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  6. […] Famous (Roger Averill, Transit Lounge), see my review •The Trauma Cleaner (Sarah Krasnostein, Text) •The Dead Still Cry Out (Helen Lewis, Text) […]

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