Road trips, as epitomised by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, can be a way to unfetter and unbind. Not in Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View, though, where a car is described as little more than a “moving coffin”.
In 1970s Australia, an adolescent girl, the novel’s narrator, embarks on a road trip across the country with her mother, brother and stepfather. The four are not only squeezed into the claustrophobic car during the day but also sleep there at night. “A car is the ideal container for a family,” Tiffany writes. “You can be always going to a better place and it keeps everyone stamped down neatly in their seats.” Trapped together, the experience is one of profound loneliness and isolation.
That is particularly the case for the narrator, who remains nameless throughout. Suffering sexual abuse and humiliations at the hands of her stepfather – an aggressive, boorish mechanic who at one point cuts off her ponytail and throws it in the bin – she stops talking. At night, she tinkers with the engines belonging to “father man”, as she calls him, an unseen rebellion and act of sabotage.
This is Tiffany’s third novel, following critical acclaim for Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (2005) and Mateship with Birds, which won the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013. Tiffany, who was born in England but grew up in Australia, has said Exploded View is her most autobiographical work yet. There is both urgency and pain in the text, which seem to seep out in the gaps between what is said out loud and what is inferred.
The narrator gestures towards abuse, without spelling it out – indeed, she seems to be suffering from a form of disassociation. Reflecting this, the other characters are distant, as if seen through a windscreen wiper on a wet, rainy day. For our teen narrator, they remain little more than cyphers, playing now outdated gender roles – her mother is a “rag”; father man a “hammer”. The car’s mechanical parts, meanwhile, become both a way of coping – a puzzle to be contended with – and a language through which she can muster words to describe her own changing body.
Plot in Exploded View comes second to a near-visceral emotional state, which envelops a text that is both poetic and relentlessly dark in tone. Although compact in size and style – with not a word wasted – and often beautiful, this is a hard read: one not to be embarked on lightly.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "Carrie Tiffany, Exploded View". Subscribe here.