Wayne Macauley is an Australian original. He writes in a tradition of dystopian satire – associated most famously with George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – but in a stripped-back and absurdist style. His work is a mixture of Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka and J. M. Coetzee (in allegorical mode), though Macauley’s fictional worlds are always set in Melbourne or greater Victoria. The meaning or relevance of his dystopian satires are to be found locally too, in our country’s follies.
In his first novel, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe (2004), Macauley exposed the recklessness of our great Australian dream of home ownership. That novel is set in a shoddily planned housing estate isolated from Melbourne, where residents soon find themselves, as the colourful Australian saying goes, “up shit creek in a barbed-wire canoe without a paddle”. Caravan Story (2007) parodies the so-called culture industries. The author himself appears as a character, taking part in a mass relocation of writers and other artists to a makeshift campsite in regional Victoria where they meaninglessly labour. The Cook (2011) satirises our contemporary obsession with cooking – portrayed as conspicuous and ruthless consumption – through the story of a delinquent from a “shitkicking suburb” of Melbourne who is to be rehabilitated through cooking lessons on a Victorian farm. In Demons (2014), a group of middle-class Melburnians escape to a holiday house on the Great Ocean Road to indulge their generation’s narcissism and social irresponsibility.
Macauley’s writing is always enlivened by the energy of anger and a certain anarchism. However, there are identifiable narrative patterns: an exodus from city to country, a wily shift from familiar to unfamiliar, a gradual intensification of the merely puzzling to the disturbing and malign. Another commonality is the frustrating malaise or incompetence of characters who are unable to properly address the dystopian conditions in which they find themselves.
Some Tests is classic Macauley in these respects. One day at work, an aged-care worker named Beth Own finds herself feeling a “little off-colour”. She goes home early and – in an act of delicious indulgence – “in the quiet of the afternoon she drew the bedroom curtains and slid under the covers”. She lets her husband collect their daughters from school and do the evening chores. After her family is asleep, she creeps out of bed and takes a glass of wine outside. “She wasn’t that sick”, she admits, and yet reflecting on the cycle of life and observing the night sky, she begins to feel a mortal anxiety.
It’s funny, she thought, when you stop to think. There was a little clock inside ticking. She looked up at the moon. There were dark spots on it. My god, she thought, you’ve come to take me. It was a thought so clear and yet so preposterous that she had to look around quickly to make sure no one had heard. The moon has come to take me away.
The morning after there is a disturbing intrusion from a locum who examines Beth while she is still sleeping, adding to the dreamlike or nightmarish nature of what follows. Beth is given a referral for a test, despite the fact that the locum’s note is hardly alarming: “37 year old female patient who complains of lethargy and general unwellness”.
What follows is a seemingly endless and bizarre series of appointments and referrals. Beth’s diagnosis becomes ever more elusive and even irrelevant. She obediently catches trains and buses to her appointments so that the purgatory of public transport becomes part of the experience. However, it is a purgatory she begins to embrace, as responsibility for herself, her job, her husband and her children falls away.
Beth’s illness appears existential or perhaps psychological. At one of the many clinics she attends, Beth asks a group of student doctors: “Why have I been so impatient with my husband? Is my lack of care for my daughters merely a symptom or a deeper personality fault? Does any of this have anything to do with my mother?”
However, being a Macauley novel, the plot inevitably thickens, becoming more strange and sinister, as Beth finds herself caught up in an alternative healthcare system in regional Victoria. It is branded “communist”, but this socialist utopia comes with a confusing edge. The trains begin to resemble the infamous trains of the Holocaust. Other allusions emerge – the Grim Reaper, danse macabre, the suicidal Jonestown cult, the Last Supper and alien abduction.
Sometimes the satire in Macauley’s novel is clear in its target and the absurdism played for laughs, as in its representation of the guesswork of diagnostics and the dodginess of the pharmaceutical industry. Beth, for instance, is finally diagnosed as “Phase Four”, which is described by a nurse thus: “After so many tests and with so little known it is reasonable to assume there might be something more, a crack in the foundations, let’s say, the kind of thing your average GP and for that matter your standard specialist won’t detect.” Beth is then prescribed medications that are “precautionary … to some extent prophylactic – but in a certain sense palliative too”. They bring out side effects that “will
feel like your symptoms”. She fills out her script at an industrial-sized chemist warehouse that caricatures the big business
Beth’s experience can be read in terms of the discombobulating experience of illness, with its interminable tests, bills and language of rebates, and with the experience of becoming a patient trapped in a system. Macauley’s invention of a “three tier” healthcare system is also timely and pointed, given the ways in which our current government seems tempted to compromise universal healthcare in this country.
However, Macauley’s writing is never just about making a political statement. Neither does he offer utopian solutions to any social problems he might expose. As a result, his novels can feel frustrating, but their estranging effect is also why you’ll find it difficult to get them out of your head. KN
Text, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 3, 2017 as "Wayne Macauley, Some Tests". Subscribe here.