The opening sentences of The Wonders don’t sucker punch you so much as grab you by the scruff of the neck and demand your undivided attention: “A week after his birthday he died for the first time. There was no flying, no tunnel. He didn’t see a light. He died, and a few minutes later he regained consciousness on a gritty carpeted floor.” It’s a beautiful little haka; a tough, graceful writer showing off the muscles that ripple beneath her prose. Sadly, that’s the last of that bravado we see for a while.
Lonely, downtrodden Leon is saved from death by an extraordinary mechanical heart. Kathryn, an emotionally battered housewife, is cured of a genetic disease but is mutated into a lamb-like humanoid and becomes a sex symbol, perhaps as homage to the lost antipodean tradition of ovine bestiality. Christos, a pompous performance artist, implants cybernetic angel wings in his back. Together, they are corralled together by an American Svengali figure and, straddling the world of the 19th-century freak show and the 21st-century lust for vacuous celebrity, become “The Wonders”, a showbiz phenomenon that attracts the adulation, and ire, of the world.
It’s a brilliant conceit, dystopian but not unimaginable, and the ideas Paddy O’Reilly explores are vital: the value of life, the nature of ability and disability, and the crushing importance of celebrity in our culture.
That intriguing set-up buckles under a narrative that seems to suffer from the same ennui that Leon does. Pointless details throw off descriptive rhythm while dialogue that isn’t pure exposition is riveted with clumsy existential subtext. “I’m only a clothes hanger, a vehicle,” an actress at a party tells Leon. “You are the thing itself. Clockwork Man.” To which Leon replies: “Or simply a vehicle for the heart.”
For all the majesty of the story, the stakes are low. An air of menace surrounds the rarefied world of The Wonders, relationships blossom and wither, tragedy strikes, betrayals abound, but little of it enchants. If this is magical realism, O’Reilly has gone heavily for the latter over the former.
O’Reilly is a gifted writer who has won acclaim with her short stories, and some of that talent is on display here. There are glimmers of brilliant social critique through fantasy, reminiscent of Peter Carey’s early work, but too often buried by convolution. Like its unfortunate heroes, the tale has been stretched beyond its capacity, and suffers for it. ZC
Affirm, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 16, 2014 as "Paddy O’Reilly, The Wonders ". Subscribe here.