Debra Oswald’s first novel for adults carries the weight of expectations: Oswald is the co-creator and head writer of Offspring, one of the smartest and funniest Australian television series of the past decade. She’s also an accomplished playwright and children’s author. Adult fiction, though, is a different beast.
Useful follows three thirtysomethings, mainly Sully, a spineless loser who faints on top of a building just before attempting suicide and ends up in hospital with concussion. He’s wasted all his chances and soon decides to donate a kidney to a stranger so that he can kill himself in good conscience after performing one truly good, useful act.
To meet the requirements of the transplant program, Sully must completely remake his life and find a job, become sober, get fit and start seeing a psychiatrist. Single mother Natalie, a friend of Sully’s ex-wife, puts him up in her late father’s apartment to dog-sit, but she has her own problems. And Tim, Sully’s former friend who has given him one chance too many, is unhappy in his toxic marriage, destructive job and unlikeable family.
The ingredients are there: kooky characters (Sully’s quirky Croatian neighbour, a loveable one-eyed dog, a vulnerable child) and slapstick set pieces (moving dead bodies, embarrassing kisses, burgeoning romances, discovering urine in fridges). There’s no reason that Useful shouldn’t work – except for the sentences. There’s no subtlety or subtext here. Every little thought and motivation from every character is explained over and over, flat on the page. The dialogue comes to life in the scenes with Sully and Tim, but this only serves to highlight the energy missing from the rest of it.
There are sparks of wit (Tim’s exercise-junkie wife is a “piece of gristle in a very expensive dress”, Sully explains his lack of belongings as having “freed myself from the chains of materialism”, while his ex-wife wears a frock “made out of stiff fabric so she appeared to have vestigial limbs sprouting from her body at several points”), but they’re too couched in qualifiers and too few. Jokes are explained, or a characters laughs, or, once, says “He’s joking …”, to tip off the reader in case she mistook it. And by the end, there is no denouement to speak of.
Useful is burdened by set-up and is heavy handed and expositional. It is not a useful illustration of Oswald’s evident talent. LS
Viking, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 7, 2015 as "Debra Oswald, Useful". Subscribe here.