The plot of Demons is simple: seven middle-class Australians, all couples but for a man whose wife is absent, spend a wintry weekend together in a semi-isolated beach house off Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. They will bring “no kids. No pets. No devices”, and agree to each tell one long true story about themselves or someone else, in the hope that “a couple of days together will be enough to get back to something real”. As is said in the opening pages, not even in jest: “This weekend we should throw away the rule book, let time stretch out before us. A different kind of time. Story time.”
The rule book is gradually thrown away, but not in the interests of mutual receptiveness. Any decorum these mostly unlikeable types may observe back home is quickly dropped in favour of storytelling intended to shock their enclave: long narratives that are only occasionally interrupted by banter and some serious inner-suburban “real talk”. For the large part, and deliberately so, the characters of the stories-within-the-story are more interesting than those who relay them.
Very obviously then this is a book about stories, one that seeks to interrogate storytelling itself. When this becomes apparent, what at first could be considered an underwhelming work from an Australian fiction writer who could never be accused of complacency, rapidly reveals itself to be a surgeon’s sternum retractor – a work designed to help the reader stare at and hold and squeeze and prod the heart of the art of fiction.
Wayne Macauley, understandably, wants desperately to believe that fiction has value, especially in the current “truth-poor environment” – that twisting and telling stories can really shake things up, that they might assist us “to figure out how we should live”. As one character opines, “Mightn’t we be better off looking to get our truth these days through an artifice that truthfully says it is one?” Macauley’s 240-page answer to this question, Dostoyevskian in its hopelessness (the Russian dark lord of literature also wrote a novel titled Demons, itself named after “that bit in the Bible where Jesus gets the demons out of a madman and puts them into a herd of swine”) is alarmingly defeatist. Hopefully this absorbing novel is the swine that contains all of Macauley’s creative doubts and demons, and the writing of it has been the sending of them over a cliff. TW
Text, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Wayne Macauley, Demons". Subscribe here.