In her 2011 review of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished The Pale King – a novel about the tedium of American life, set in a tax office – Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times sums up the dangers of metafiction. “Not surprisingly,” she writes, “a novel about boredom is, more than occasionally, boring.”
That’s not to say that Sean Rabin’s debut novel, Wood Green, is boring. It’s far from that. His protagonist, Michael Pollard, is a young academic from Sydney who wrote his PhD on Lucian Clarke, an ageing genius novelist who lives reclusively in the fictional village of Wood Green, halfway up Mount Wellington, overlooking Hobart. Out of the blue, Michael is contacted by Lucian with a job offer: to move to Tasmania and become his secretary. Michael has nothing to lose: he’s bored with his girlfriend, Rachel, and his own dreams of writing fiction have come to nothing. He’s ambitious, and prepared for sacrifice, and he knows that:
Novels did not write themselves. He needed to work harder than he had ever done before, or risk repeating the two failed attempts that had marred the past four years of his life. Michael felt instinctively that this was his last chance. If not here and now, then when exactly was he going to write the story that was so persistent in his imagination?
Michael finds Wood Green peopled by minor characters, including husband-and-wife general storekeepers in the dying days of their marriage, a lonely publican looking for love, and a South African immigrant on the run. At the centre of everything is Lucian, Michael’s hero, who lives in a rundown cottage on the outskirts of the tiny town. He’s at once charismatic and grumpy, with a rich artistic life behind him and blessed with the singular, exquisite thrill that comes with the act of writing great fiction. He’s everything Michael wants to be. He and Michael take turns cooking; they listen to music and smoke spliff after spliff. Michael is blind to Lucian’s motives and as he settles into a routine of sorting through the vast archive, ostensibly to help Lucian order his autobiography, his own fiction begins miraculously to improve. There’s a price to be paid for this, of course.
Stories about Faustian pacts are perennially fascinating. Novels about young men writing novels, also, are not new: Karl Ove Knausgård took six books to write one, and sold millions worldwide in the process. There’s a special pleasure to be found in the way Rabin deals with literature and music in Wood Green, which is only right. If the creation of art requires eschewal, at least we should understand its commensurate pleasures. Lucian’s novel collection is expertly curated and adds to Rabin’s idea that memory is a fluid bridge between reality and imagination, as novels themselves are, between the present and the past. In a remarkable scene, Lucian explains to Michael why he doesn’t have any photos of himself by pointing at his bookcase. “This is my photo album. An entire lifetime of reading. Every one of these books contain a memory of a place or an event or a person that’s more vivid in my mind than any photograph.” Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, Lucian tells him, “is Ladbroke Grove in London. Grey streets. Grey sky. A basement flat with traffic just outside my door … crap job … Terrible homesickness.” The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards, in contrast, “is Greece. A small island with one shop, two restaurants, lots of donkeys, and the sound of turkeys gobbling just before sunset.”
Rabin handles his Tasmanian setting in two ways. In realist mode, Wood Green is dark and evocative, a gorgeously rendered moody place where weird things happen. When playing with the conventions of setting as character, Rabin presents pages of taxi driver monologue; Tasmania as tourist fodder. “Just north of Hobart we’ve also got the oldest golf course in the Southern Hemisphere. And in Richmond, about twenty minutes drive north east, there’s Australia’s oldest bridge; oldest postal building and oldest Catholic Church.” The novel’s supporting characters seem to exist purely to demonstrate the nature of attraction and the push-pull of coupling and decoupling, although I half suspect they are allusions to something I’m not sufficiently well-read to recognise (alas, just like Lucian’s critics, who “had failed to detect the references to Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays that Lucian had included at the beginning of each chapter”). Their subplots and arcs are mostly left open: perhaps this is a further statement on the neatness of realist fiction, in agreement with Lucian’s philosophy that, in fiction, “awkwardness is fine. Rough edges are good.”
Whether readers find Wood Green satisfying might rest on their views about metafiction as a technique. Is Rabin’s self-conscious parodying of literary conventions clever, or too clever by half? Is the choice of the name Lucian, for example, a playful wink to Balzac, or a cynical one? After all:
Michael’s only regret was that the story concerned a writer. He had read enough debut fiction to appreciate how typical the subject was for a first time novelist.
On reading and re-reading Wood Green, I vacillated: one minute, the novel seemed a deft subversion of literary conventions; the next, Rabin seemed a contemptuous tailor sewing the emperor’s new clothes for his readers. Michael, when he finally understands Lucian’s lack of respect for reviews and critics, thinks little of “the spare clean style of prose currently in vogue with publishers and universities …”, written “To ensure readers would recognise themselves in the work. For without such a thing there was a risk they might experience a different way of thinking.”
Art can be a cruel mistress, and Wood Green is at once a love letter and a hate letter to literature, writing, writers and readers. Michael and Lucian might disapprove of such prosaic reasoning, but in the end, its success comes down to the ultimate test of any novel: could I easily put it down? Reader, I could not. LS
Giramondo, 256pp, $26.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 25, 2016 as "Sean Rabin, Wood Green". Subscribe here.