Kenric is an executive at The Firm, a Sydney advertising company. He has a knack for branding products and he “knows what draws consumers to words. He knows the magic of words … their hidden life”.
Kenric feels out of place among the lascivious coked-up buffoons at The Firm, but he connects with new secretary Maria, who inspires him to leave his job and unhappy marriage and establish an alternative community in a disused meat-packing plant in Western Sydney’s Mount Druitt. There, Kenric founds a movement, The Word. It is built on his philosophy that reality is constructed by language, thereby making words all-powerful. Mistaking Kenric for a cult leader, an ensemble of academic dropouts, aspiring professionals and New-Age burnouts flock to The Word to experiment with etymology, semiotics, philosophy and polyamory.
The Word is William Lane’s fourth novel and it returns to his frequent mode: surrealist satire of bourgeois vanities. This is a romp through the spiritual vacuum at the heart of late-capitalist culture – the religions, philosophies and New-Age quackeries that fill it, and our tendency to put faith in bad ideas and people with persuasive pitch. It highlights the similarities between theology and marketing; how self-delusion makes us all prey to confidence men and hucksters. At least, that’s the intent.
In a story about the subtle power of language, Lane has taken great joy in flexing his vocabulary and deep knowledge of wordcraft. Take this description of a beachhouse nestled below the dunes of Sydney’s northern suburbs: “Impermanence permeated the house … the sandstone floor might have been the base of the coast itself.” But is capricious joy in verbal pyrotechnics enough to carry a satire of urbane excess? Regrettably, no.
The narrative is confoundingly erratic, with manic characters almost talking over each other in a rush to set up zany set pieces and escalate absurdist situations. It’s satirical in an old-fashioned, madcap sort of way – in conception and delivery, Lane channels Spike Milligan, if Milligan now resides in a hell without line editors.
With threadbare action and listless pacing, The Word is not plot-driven, nor, despite reams of dialogue, is it really character-driven. It walks, more or less, towards its conclusion, leaving the reader feeling as if they’ve been stuck at an interminable dinner party and looking forward to the taxi home. ZC
Transit Lounge, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "William Lane, The Word".
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