Books

Miles Allinson
Fever of Animals

Miles, a young man and failed artist, is in hermitage in a dusty cottage outside Berlin. He is ostensibly working on a book about a mysterious Romanian surrealist painter but really mourning the death of his father and the loss of his girlfriend. That’s more or less the entirety of the plot in Fever of Animals, the debut novel from Miles Allinson, winner of the high-profile Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2014.

Allinson has written a postmodern roman à clef that dispenses with some tropes of the novel – narrative journey, cathartic release, character development – in favour of a moody, multilayered character study. It’s a studied, painterly approach from an author who is also an artist.

The most immediate literary model would be, perhaps, Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgård. There’s a similar confessional beat to the prose, the same dwelling on minutiae. From an aeroplane the sea sparkles “like a desert of salt” and buildings shimmer like “fragments of crushed shell”. It becomes clear early on that this is a novel concerned less with the act of storytelling than with the art.

Much time is spent discussing art – the capacity for redemption, the cost of an artistic temperament. The narrator connects in a profound way with artworks, an act he struggles to replicate with the people who try to break through his emotional isolation. Each moment of personal revelation is buttressed by beautifully crafted descriptions of art. Two pages are spent lovingly viewing a Caravaggio in a hot, hostile Naples, while Miles remains oblivious to his disintegrating world.

In fact, more than other experimental novels, it’s another Caravaggio to which Fever invites comparison: Narcissus. That painting, a masterpiece of brooding melancholy, with the figure of Narcissus locked in a circle of his own distorted reflection, oblivious to all else, is a perfect pictorial representation of this novel.

The difference between Caravaggio’s and Allinson’s narcissists is that the latter is fixated on ugliness, not beauty. Baffled and confounded by his own selfishness, obsessed with his self-obsession, he invites the reader to join the flagellation.

The effect is polarising. At its best, Fever is a Nabokovian portrait of the artist as a broken man. At its worst, long, messy tracts make for a love letter from a man to his lyrical conscience, on which, at times, the reader feels they have been mistakenly BCCed.  ZC

Scribe, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Miles Allinson, Fever of Animals ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: ZC