Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2021

In Moonland, by Miles Allinson

All those of us who have lost a parent know the anguish of wanting to ask just one more question.  I lost both my parents within 18 months of each other just a few years ago and I still feel new to this grief thing, so I’m not sure of this… but I think that the desire to ask is not really about knowing something that we neglected to ask, it’s more about wanting to have them back.  We think that knowing the parent’s past will somehow anchor us, but I suspect that the sense of feeling adrift isn’t resolved by facts and information.  I kept thinking about this as I read Miles Allinson’s absorbing new novel In Moonland. 

This is how it begins:

In March 1996, a few months before he drove into a tram stop, my father bought an old Ford Torino with the money he’d won on a horse called Holy Moly.  He was a fast, erratic driver, and it made him happy for a while, that car — the roar of it, the faded yellow phoenix on the black bonnet, the way the road seemed to open up for him.  He hated traffic, but when all the lights are green, you can slide through the universe like a spirit without a body.  Then things started to go wrong, and he had to spend a lot of money trying to fix them.

I was seventeen years old when it happened. (p.3)

At the time, speculation about the crash involved a suspicion that Vince was trying to crash and claim the car insurance.  No one really thought then that he was trying to kill himself.  But as the years go by, Joe is not so sure.

… my father died before we could ask him what he’d been thinking. But I also know that it’s possible to think or feel a number of contradictory things at the same time and to act decisively anyway.  Maybe he didn’t know which of the possible outcomes he preferred, death or insurance, maybe they were both okay in that moment, and what he really wanted was the thrill of sudden fate bearing down on him again.  I think he had been unhappy for most of my life.  (pp.4-5)

Joe’s father Vincent was a difficult blend of fond father and angry man, prone to outbursts of violence and fury.  His mother isn’t forthcoming about why this might be so, and so Joe (who narrates most of this story) knows very little about the man.

When he’s too immature and selfish to do his share of parenting, Joe becomes a father himself and this is the catalyst for a renewed interest in his father’s life.  The poignant irony is that his quest to find out more about the life of his own absent parent, makes him an absent parent to his daughter Sylvie.  Her narrative in the last part of the book takes place in a ghastly climate-changed future, and it is unbearably sad.  It’s a vivid wake-up call to everyone about the future of the planet that future generations will have to inhabit, unless action is taken now.

Which makes the self-indulgence of Joe’s father in the 1970s counter-culture even more troubling.  Although there’s nothing much about it in the ‘Ok, boomer’ narrative that’s prevalent now, there was a great deal of concern and grass-roots activism about the environment at that time.  Those of us who were out planting trees and haranguing retailers about excess packaging and getting DDT banned were not much impressed by the hippies smoking dope in places like Nimbin. At the end of the day, you want to be able to look your kids in the eye and say, I did what I could.  (For a glimpse of what this hippie lifestyle was like for kids, try Hope Farm by Peggy Frew.)

In Moonland shows that sometimes, finding out about a parent’s past can be more than disappointing.

Joe tracks down his father’s hippie friends who, with brains addled by dementia now and drugs back then, share a patchwork of confusing memories about a cult in India.  It’s one of those meditation cults that morphed into the cult leader exporting himself to the wealthy west, along with a Rolls Royce, gaudy jewellery and expensive real estate.  But when Vince as a young man is at the ashrum in Pune in India, it’s all about rebirthing and chanting, drugs and sex.  Lots of it.

Joe looks it up on Google, as you do…

On You Tube, a few days later, I found this:

Hundreds of semi-naked westerners; bearded, beautiful, hairy, orange-clad people hard at work in a jungle of dappled light.  It was the ashram in Pune in 1976.  The year my father was there.

Sylvie was asleep.  Sarah was in bed, probably not asleep.  I was sitting on the couch, in darkness.  It was nearly midnight.  There were plenty of Osho’s lectures I could have watched.  I had, in fact, watched some of them. You can watch them yourself.  Bhagwan on ‘Life’ and ‘Laughter’ and then — after he changed his name — Osho on everything else: on ‘Love’ and ‘Happiness’ and ‘Death’ and ‘Marriage’.  Osho sitting in a chair that appeared to be made entirely from bubble-wrap.  Osho looking increasingly bitter, it seemed to me, looking less and less trustworthy.  (p.93)

#Digression: Suspecting that my Facebook feed will now forevermore feature ads for ashrams, I googled this ashram, noting that it’s now Osho International, and discovered that finding inner peace is not the only goal of some of its adherents.

My favourite part of this novel comes in chapter 12, where Joe takes a day off work to watch films at the Screen and Television Archive at Federation Square, here in Melbourne.  He watches three films made by one of his father’s mates, Mike Tadic.  They were funny, award, luminous, boring films of odd lengths: thirty-seven minutes, forty-two minutes, one hundred and fifty-seven minutes.  Too long or not quite long enough, as if they were designed not to be watched at all, to fall instead through the gaps of our attention span.  

The first film jammed in the video player, and I think I might have destroyed it when I tried to pry it out.  An assistant managed to find a second copy somewhere, but the sound on that one came and went, and for agonising periods I was forced to lip-read through a roar of static.  Then the sound would suddenly clear, and those uncanny Australian accents from the seventies would return, so ordinary and lonely and naïve.  The voices of people who had no idea what was coming.  Then just some very long psychedelic dream sequences.  Too long for most people’s taste, I would say.

That first film was called Ghosts. It was the most experimental, the most interesting, and the longest.  It opened with a group of hippies stumbling around for ages through a smouldering wasteland: grey sky, flute solo, sleepy guitar, and mounds of rubbish burning under an enormous half-built bridge.  The soundtrack was composed by a band called Leprous Porpoise.  ‘Love should be put into action’ the singer moans, ‘but man, I can’t move, I’m just relaxin’.  (p.76)

#Digression: since I was living an ordinary suburban life at the time, even when I was living in the inner city, my friends and I used to see this sort of shenanigans on TV, and laugh at it.  It’s funny now too, though in retrospect it seems to have been a rather sad waste of these people’s lives.

Anyway Joe, frustrated by the vagueness of his father’s hippie friends, wonders why, if it was all so enjoyable, did Vince leave, come back to Australia and start a family?

This is a terrific novel about fatherhood, mortality, the unreliability of family stories and the fractured nature of reality.  That disconcerting cover design by Alison Colpoys is an all too rare example of a designer capturing the essence of a novel.

Author: Miles Allinson
Title: In Moonland
Cover design by Alison Colpoys
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2021
ISBN: 9781925322927, pbk., 243 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe


Responses

  1. I think you are onto something in your opening paragraph Lisa. There is, sometimes, an element of regret about things you don’t know, but you get over that pretty quickly. It’s more subtle, as you say, the sense of their not having your back, of their presence not being there anymore. I think about mine all the time. Anyhow, this book sounds interesting.

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  2. So interesting, Lisa. Sometimes I think we’re better off not knowing everything about everybody, particularly family members…

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    • Oh yes, in real life you never hear people bragging about their family history when there’s someone they don’t approve of. The Spouse has a family tree chart that lists one female ancestor only by name and with the comment that she was ‘not a credit to the family name’.
      (Naturally, she’s the only one who interests me!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Straight on my reading list! I was thinking about my parents today (mother died in 2010, father in 2013) but it is my maternal grandfather who died in 1969 I miss the most. Raw pain becomes an ache, but never disappears.

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    • Yes, that’s true.
      Mind you, I’m glad they’re no longer with us to be navigating Covid. I don’t know how mine would have got by if I couldn’t get up to the Gold Coast regularly to see to things. And they were so technophobic, asking them to book for a vaccination online would have been impossible.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] just coincidence, but the last book I read was about a man trying to find out about his father’s past, and now Lucy Neave’s new […]

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  5. I like the idea of films that fall into the gaps of viewers’ attention spans; it makes me also think of how a volume of stories would suit that purpose.

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