Tom is a young man in need of a spiritual guide and a personal trainer, someone to rehabilitate his damaged self-image and bring down his half-marathon time. Enter Coach Fitz. This guru in a yellow legionnaire’s cap is an exceptional long-distance runner and a former psychoanalyst. She’s also full of strong opinions about the many ways in which young men are led astray.
This quirky debut novel by Tom Lee is a wonderfully strange patchwork of psychobabble, self-help buzzwords and technocratic jargon. Tom imperfectly mimics the bizarre locutions of his mentor and his free indirect narration reads like a cut-up pop psychology pamphlet glued back together with a few crucial parts the wrong way around. The effect is of a sincere but slightly cracked mind that still hasn’t learnt to think for itself.
Tom talks of maladapted subjects craving satisfaction in goals that provide outcomes of lasting delight, of psychological expansion and intropathic powers, of resilient and life-giving delusions and of his own neurochemical equilibrium. It’s the sort of book where a simple picnic hamper is described as a lunch-making apparatus. And yet this crazy prattling style, with its almost complete lack of irony, produces some fine comic effects:
The pasta was very average, a great recipe that in execution somehow lacked nuance, overcooked, too much oil, bad cheese. Yet Coach said it was among the finest things she’d ever tasted and continually remarked on its features, in particular the occasional swollen raisins hidden within the cheesy sauce, which she would pick out with her fingers, hold up to her eyes and say, this is the raison d’être!
There’s an easy matter-of-factness here, a flatness of affect reminiscent of the work of Gerald Murnane. The comparison with Murnane is useful because Tom himself is such a Murnanean creation. His sexual desire is weak and irregular and yet he dreams up highly detailed narratives about long-term partnerships involving strangers glimpsed briefly on his long runs. It’s also worth noting Coach Fitz is full of reflections about the urban and coastal environments around Sydney, and the poetics of space more generally.
Of course, Lee is not Murnane and his tonal control is not always so exquisite – sometimes the waffle is all but impenetrable – but the resemblance is fascinating. And although Tom’s faith in his mentor does begin to pall, the interest in this peculiar novel never does. JR
Giramondo, 256pp, $26.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 15, 2018 as "Tom Lee, Coach Fitz". Subscribe here.