Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2019

This Excellent Machine, by Stephen Orr

One of the aspects of getting older that’s a bit eerie, is finding that part of your life has become ‘the olden days’.  Initially, my idea of ‘the olden days’ was that era when my parents were children and young adults, a time that they would evoke with nostalgia (or otherwise).  Then, emerging with self-mockery but solidifying into nostalgia (or not), ‘the olden days’ become the years of my own child- and young adulthood.  But what’s really spooky is when the years of The Offspring’s child-and young adulthood have become ‘the olden days’.

Though they’ll enjoy it just as much, I suspect that the generation after mine will read Stephen Orr’s new autobiographical novel somewhat differently to me.  This Excellent Machine was a revelation, because The Offspring was (just like his parents) immune to popular culture.  So whereas most parents were dragged into 1980s culture by their children, I wasn’t.  Orr’s book is a ‘foreign country‘ to me.  It’s like reading about a tourist attraction you missed seeing while you were on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Orr is one of my favourite authors: I’ve read all but one of his seven novels, and he is a genius with characterisation and setting. In This Excellent Machine Clem Whelan is the central character, trapped in the Sunnyboy summer of 1984 and wondering what to do with his life.  When he quizzes his mother once again about his long-absent, best-forgotten father, he knows the script even before they start, and eventually he recognises the pattern:

I’d had enough.  She was like a mower starting on a very big paddock.  (p.85)

*Ouch!*

There is a conspiracy of silence about this absent father.  Clem lives in a close-knit street in a working-class suburb of Adelaide.  (Only, most people are not working, except in backyard ventures or casual, pointless jobs.  The 1980s was when people started to find out what globalisation really meant).  Everyone knows everyone else, and people rarely move away so the neighbours remember Clem’s birth and early childhood.  And they remember his father, but they keep schtum about it too.  Clem has reached the age where he needs to know, mainly because he is in search of a mentor to guide him through his difficult last year at school.  He’s not sure it’s going to be worth it, and his teachers, ground down because of the hopelessness of their students’ future, aren’t much help.  Pop’s advice is to knuckle down but Clem thinks it might be too late:

It seemed stupid to reduce life to a tertiary entrance ranking, but that’s how it was.  Your brain produced a number, the number got you into university, this got you a good or boring job.  There were more of the latter than the former, so you had to work hard and take advantage of every opportunity. (p.282)

He likes the art teacher, Nick, but Nick doesn’t last because his anarchic attitudes get him on the carpet in the principal’s office, just like any naughty schoolboy.  OTOH Mrs Masharin believes in Clem’s talent as a writer but his judgement of her is harsh:

Mrs Masharin was our own commissar, Soviet discipline made word in the Gleneagles Steppes. Short skirt and unforgiving pantyhose, knee-high boots (always polished) and an industrious shirt; hair up (bun narrowly avoided) and a slight accent that could’ve been anything European, but we were so white-bread we didn’t know.  She looked at me and said, ‘Nice big voice.’ Each word separate, in her usual permafrost accent. (p.357)

The occasion for using a ‘nice big voice’ is when Clem’s writing is featured in a broadcast on the school’s radio station (known not so affectionately as Radio Bogan).

The new radio station (Mr de Weerd’s idea) had started broadcasting across the school grounds every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at recess and lunch.  Light classics, mainly, courtesy of Ms Field’s expansive Comoesque record collection, but the powers that be had conceded, allowing a pop segment (Spandau Ballet, Boy George), an electronic music corner (there were other Kraftwerk fans) and Mrs Masharin’s literature salon.  (p.357)

Even the minor characters are vivid portraits of humanity:

Dwayne Schuit had been made producer.  He sat in a control desk outside the studio.  Dwayne of the Komputer Klub (‘Fun Programming in Basic’), debating and chess club.  Dwayne, who’d missed out on a private education, but wore a tie and jacket to school anyway.  Quoting Python ten years before anyone else; topping Year Eleven Latin (narrowly beating Curtis) and Classics, making it clear he wanted to study arts.  (p.358)

Alas, the radio program also features an aggrieved ex-girlfriend. Clem’s best mate Curtis had, in a romantic moment, given this girl a photograph of his backside, 500 copies of which she has previously plastered all over the school ground.  (Remember those instant photo booths?) Tracey has reason to be very angry with Curtis, and she isn’t finished yet.  When Mrs Masharin asks her to talk on air about the book she’s been reading, her voice rings out all over the schoolyard and beyond, with her summation of a book called ‘Glory Days’… about a young girl, and she stupidly falls for a boy called Curtis. Invited to say more, Tracey continues” ‘In today’s world a girl needs to be careful.  As this book shows, many boys care only for one thing.  Curtis Durell is such a boy.’  You can guess the rest…

So there are laugh-out-loud moments, but also poignant sequences where Clem learns that his initial judgements of people aren’t always fair, and that sometimes there are heart-rending reasons why people do rather odd things such as knitting 17 identical jumpers in all different sizes.

I really enjoyed losing myself in the pages of this book.  Because Clem’s been shielded from the kind of world his father represents, anticipation propels the reader along as the quest to learn about his father intensifies. But it’s his plans to help his ageing Pop find Lasseter’s Reef that are most compelling…

Pop, a backyard mechanic who’s supported the family throughout Clem’s lifetime, is succumbing to dementia.  He’s struggling to remember the sequence of car parts for the repairs he does, he goes wandering and gets lost, and he fumbles for words he known all his life.  But Pop’s fixation on finding the reef, his insistence on keeping the search secret, and his growing inability to foresee consequences is what really ramps up the narrative tension.  Even if you haven’t read T.G.H. Strehlow’s harrowing Journey to Horseshoe Bend, which Pop references to inspire Clem into similar loyalty, the idea of this teenage boy (who keeps failing his driving test) and his grandfather setting out into the harsh South Australian outback in an ageing Datsun 120Y makes for a page-turning experience.

You can read an extract here.

Image credit: Datsun 120Y (Sunny B210), Markmastro, public domain, Wikipedia

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: This Excellent Machine
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2019, 482 pages
ISBN: 9781743056134
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond (This Excellent Machine); direct from the publisher and all good bookstores.

 


Responses

  1. We had a Datsun just like that when I was growing up, but it didn’t have the black bit at the top; the whole car was blue. I still remember the excitement when dad brought it home… I’m guesstimating it was around 1977 or 78!

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    • Ah… now… bear in mind that I am not an expert on cars of any kind… but when I seemed to me that some readers would have no idea what a 120Y was like, I went hunting for an image at Wikipedia. I discovered that ‘our’ 120Y was actually a Nissan Sunny, exported all over the world in different configurations to meet design rules and tastes. (It’s actually a very long article!) Anyway, they had a picture of an Australian 120Y but it was the coupe (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nissan_Sunny, scroll way down) and it didn’t look like the rudimentary 120Ys that that used to rally alongside us in our Renault 8 Gordini. So the picture I’ve used is actually a UK 120Y.
      Yes, I think that’s right for the release date … I’m not reading that whole article all over again!… so by the time it’s being prepared for the outback trip it’s far too old for the undertaking.
      I’m guessing you’d love this book!

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      • I stand corrected: our car was a 180B 🤪
        And yes, I reckon I probably would love this book but I’ve got a load of his others to get to first: I bought them on Kindle (cos his paperbacks not published here), plus his publisher sent me his last short story collection which I started but never got around to finishing, not because I didn’t like it but because when it’s on the Kindle it’s easy to forget about. Come to think about it, wasn’t that collection called Datsun Land ? !

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        • It was indeed. (And his twitter handle is @Datsunland!)
          And yes, I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve bought on Kindle and forgotten all about them. I need the physical presence of a book on my shelves to remind me that it’s there.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh, I didn’t know he was on Twitter *promptly heads over to give him a follow*

            And yes, as much as I love being able to carry a whole library on my kindle, if the physical book isn’t there in front of me I forget about them.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. And, just like that, I’ve reserved a copy from the library. I like Stephen Orr’s book as well. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. I’m yet to be tempted to read a Stephen Orr. The olden days I remember had can toilets and bread and milk deliveries by horse & cart. Not sure I’m ready yet to think of the 80s as olden days, and anyway culturally they passed me by unnoticed (the kids were still in primary school). Why were his prospects so hopeless? The recession we had to have was still in the future and Adelaide was still a major car manufacturing centre.

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  4. Stephen Orr is one of my favourite writers as well! Great to have another novel to look forward to!

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    • And apparently it’s going to be a trilogy:)

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  5. I like Steven Orr too, so haven’t read this review properly as I hope to get to this one. I did enjoy your discussion with Kim re the 120Y. Mr Gums bought one about the time I met him (he’d just returned from 2 years living and working overseas). I think its numberplate was YUQ and we used to call it the 120YUK. I had a much superior car – a Toyota Corolla! OK, so it was stodgier, but … !!

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    • While I was zooming around in a very lively Renault! I have only ever had one speeding ticket in my life, (and that was because I mistook the zone for one where I thought the limit was higher), but I tell you, I did love hurtling around the Albert Park Lake at 100k when there was no speed limit on it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, Lisa – I was always too sensible about cars. But I have had a couple of speeding tickets in fact. The speed vans in Canberra have taught me – rightly – to be very careful. Our roads here are so good that it’s really easy to exceed the speed limits (even in boring cars!!)

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        • Oh, I was quite sensible. I knew exactly what I was doing, and of course I never did it when there were other cars on the track. I was taught to drive by Terry Southall, a racing car driver who held the lap record at Phillip Island. He taught me high-speed cornering and managing skids and how to drive in the wet, something that the RACV driving school never taught its students, at least not in those days. I don’t know if they do now. They didn’t when The Offspring was learning to drive, we had to send him to an off-road school to learn all that.

          Liked by 1 person


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