Fiction can do a lot with the mysteries of other people’s intentions. In The Adversary, Melbourne writer Ronnie Scott’s soon-to-be-released debut novel, the narrator thinks compulsively about the unseen motives of others, interpreting the smallest social gestures as clues to their agendas. At the local pool, a man in “smooth white trunks” passes a burger to another attractive young man over the narrator’s body and “just a drop of mayo” drips beside his naked chest – it’s completely unclear if this is a social triumph or a spectacular fail. Some moments can mean anything.
“People often see what they expect to see,” Scott tells me. “And their ability to see something depends on everything else that they have seen, right?”
We caught up on a sunny Sunday afternoon at a cafe in Melbourne’s inner north, right near the pool where the mayo dribble occurs, at the end of a summer very different from the one described in his novel. One that started with bushfires and moved through strange weather, with a novel coronavirus only just emerging.
By contrast, in The Adversary, summer is “a time of public appearances and self-discoveries”, and when the novel’s pensive young narrator isn’t showering to excess or flicking though hook-up apps on his smartphone, he’s induced to attend parties, dinners and weekends away. He’s convinced that his housemate and best friend, Dan, has a “treasonous” plan “to send me out into the world in search of love and friendship”.
Scott describes his protagonist as “peevish”, “ambivalent” and “slightly unhinged” – none of which, I would add, prevent him from making eccentric observations of the habits of his social world. The aforementioned pool scene, for example, is a study in public manners that recalls the social set pieces of Alan Hollinghurst and Gore Vidal. In the careful placement of towels on the pool’s bleachers, the narrator detects a social “art”, requiring “a keen eye for towel-shaped opportunity and no undue squeamishness for disadvantaging others”. The suspicious and curious among us may become keen observers of social ways.
“Of course, it makes sense that people would want to decode others,” Scott says. “Hitching your fate to another person or letting someone into a really private part of your life – which happens in casual sex and certainly with friendships and living in houses with people – is an act of trust. We might not always get the right read on the people around us, but we pick up more clues about them than we realise.”
Is it a young gay man thing – this slightly paranoid impulse to wonder about the agendas of other people? Scott reckons it’s more broadly related to coming of age. “There is a sense of figuring yourself out by putting together other people and how they perform their personalities, and comparing and contrasting them [to yourself].” And it’s a handy literary device, too: “I think that when you write a first-person story, the action is always about perception.”
Writing the novel in that way, Scott says, was “probably like one of the most thoughtless and automatic things about it – just going into a scene of people and having the narrator interpret”. It was only afterwards when talking about the book with others that he realised it was a novel of manners, a genre Scott initially thought of as “a very genteel, bloodless kind of thing”. But, upon deeper consideration, he reflected that in “many of the best examples” there is often “blood on the floor”.
“Like Madame Bovary,” he says, “which is very clearly not an influence on this book, and yet I like the idea that something can feel very surface level, and all about interpreting things that people say and gestures and behaviours, and [that] that’s a way of concealing the fact that people have bodies and that there can be consequences to what they use them for.”
In 2007, at the tender age of 21, Scott founded literary magazine The Lifted Brow and edited it with a group of friends in Brisbane, which was then his home city. He and two others brought Brow headquarters to Melbourne a year later. He moved south, he says, “for the same kind of reason that anyone moves to a new city: I had the chance to study here, I really liked the city, and I had probably spent long enough in the place where I grew up”. He describes Brisbane as “where I was on that edge of being young, while also having enough responsibility to start having some stakes and observable consequences to your choices, so you have to start learning lessons about yourself and people”.
Scott, who is now a creative writing lecturer at RMIT University, stepped back from editing the much-loved magazine in 2012 but has since returned as its chair. He published his first book in 2014, Salad Days, about the foodieism seeping into the lives of everyday Australians, himself included. His book posed that enduring brunch table question: why do some young renters in Brunswick spend gratuitously on baroque progressive dinner parties instead of saving up for real estate? And what, he wondered, does the vogue for French bistronomy and #instafoodporn say about how we relate to one another in “a country where one friend’s grandmother still won’t eat spaghetti because it’s ‘wog food’ ”? Tonally, Salad Days has a breezy kind of Aperol spritz energy, but it always has one critical eye turned towards the ethical and industrial problems – animal slaughter, worker exploitation – that underpin the zeitgeist of culinary complexity. “Is the problem,” Scott asks in the book, “more real, and in need of an actual corrective?”
In that sense, The Adversary isn’t so far from Salad Days, despite the two books appearing six years apart, one an essay and one a novel. The summertime narrative of the latter sparkles along so effervescently it’s easy to forget the author has some deadly serious questions to pose about the consequences of everyday behaviour. The book manages something like a perfect balance of weird estrangement from and pleasurable identification with the lives it describes.
And as well as pressing urban etiquette through the cold press of meaning – and staring curiously into the rich, cloudy juice that comes out the other end – The Adversary is also a “salad days” novel, set across a summer that feels almost sealed off from time. Reading it stirred up nostalgia for my own early 20s, living in a cheap share house in the same part of Melbourne, lying around wondering – precisely as Scott’s narrator does – when my cooler and more interesting than me housemate would get home. “I think that [nostalgia] is definitely a sense that I wanted to give people,” Scott says.
When he started writing the novel, the year Salad Days was published, he’d left the Brow, finished a PhD and just wanted to figure out how to write a novel. He was also between two long-term, monogamous relationships, and smartphones had happened while he was ensconced in the first. “I was probably too old to be inspired and enthralled by apps and dating, and probably too old to be learning the lessons that I was, but I had also been totally sheltered from them.” The Adversary portrays the social and sexual rituals that circulate in queer friendship and dating circles, and the role digital devices play in mediating them. Hook-up apps are present in the story in an organic, un-obvious way, something a lot of writers struggle to achieve.
“I had that really useful position,” Scott says, “of being partway in and partway out of a subject … It means you have some skin in the game but also means you have some useful naivety about it.” Still, he says, “I was very careful to not base it on my own experiences very closely.” Scott drew on 10 anonymous interviews to help him flesh out his characters and their lives. “I think the stories that people tell about any city or subculture, or age group or any kind of sexual or dating social scene, are basically really fruitful genres that you can play with and unpack.
“[When you] come upon sexuality,” he says, “often you’re handed this whole collection of codes and artefacts and behavioural norms, which don’t come from your family, and probably don’t come from the social milieu that you’ve inhabited to this point. I think that you’re often learning from unaccredited sources. And therein lies the drama and the interest. Everyone’s kind of a quack, in a way that’s narratively appealing, I suppose, and emotionally fraught.”
During the years he spent on The Adversary, Scott was figuring out the mechanics of novel writing, and it took some trial and error. “I had to rewrite it heaps of times and always used the drafts to figure out what it was really about,” he says. “Plus the world outside the book kept changing, with things like PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV], U=U [a campaign to spread awareness that a person with an undetectable viral load can’t transmit HIV to their sexual partners], same-sex marriage and Safe Schools raising questions about the book’s politics that had to come through in its characters and atmosphere and structure.”
Although it may seem like an Austenian sex comedy about the strange social conventions of gay millennials, not so secretly The Adversary is a novel about friendship. Of all the enigmatic homosexual gentlemen the narrator encounters, the one he most neurotically fixates on is Dan. “Living with Dan,” he claims, “meant being involved, unmistakably, at least in certain domestic-grade conspiracies.” But it becomes clear that Dan is a kind of heroic figure to the narrator – an ideal and a mentor. I wonder if what emerged from Scott’s writing and research was partly an ode to the intensity of share-house relationships, to the kinds of informal kinships that emerge in group households but aren’t quite sustainable – not to the same level of intensity – beyond them.
“That was kind of the impetus behind the book,” he agrees. “I never had a best friendship like that – and I’ve certainly never had a friendship like that with a gay man – but I’ve seen them, and I’ve always been really fascinated by them. I love the idea of that kind of confidence that you can have in another person.”
He claims, however, to be “constitutionally unsuited to being in a close devotional friendship with one person”. Scott likes a lot of time alone, and he suspects he is “probably inconstant in ways that you can’t be in best-friend relationships”. “So I really like observing them, and I think that was a dramatic challenge [for the] book. How do you write the story of that kind of friendship? I knew I didn’t want it to be secretly romantic or secretly sexual. I was wary of the idea that a friendship like that must necessarily be hiding something.”
Indeed, for a novel that is, superficially speaking, a sex comedy about young gay men, there is actually far less sex than one might expect. When it comes to the bodies of others, the narrator is awkward and pessimistic: even though he thinks he’s “a sexual being”, and keeps “coming across boys I almost, almost wanted”, he also “knew people were gross and preferred them to keep their distance, leaving space between us”.
“I thought it would make a lot of sense for him to be really physically close with Dan,” Scott says, “you know, sharing a house with him, and being curious where he is all the time, and thinking about Dan through the walls, and then highlight that by giving him less than enthusiastic feelings about other people’s bodies as well.”
Scott says the novel had more sex scenes in earlier drafts, but he decided that most of them didn’t feel right for the central character – and that withholding sex would make things more interesting. “You think that having sex with someone will have some outcome or finding – like, even if you don’t think this consciously, there is the idea that it will advance a relationship, or that it will scratch an itch, or bring about some kind of understanding. And it was fun to resist that.”
Explicit or not, the novel of manners, with its boudoir intrigues, rakish behaviour and ambiguous innuendos, is a genre charged with sexual tension. And there is a long tradition of queer or ambiguous narrators – and novelists – who have used the genre to peer at the world through queer eyes. Frequently, both the drama and the pleasure of such fictions rely on the very fact of ambiguous intentions. In some, such as Henry James’s novels of consciousness, for example, misinterpreting the self or the intentions of others often ends in tragedy. Not so in The Adversary. There are shocks, yes, but overall the novel feels existentially calm about the great unknowableness of others.
“It’s wild to think that we expect to grow up in the direction of certainty and meaning,” Scott muses, “and that we’ll go to our grave speculating about the nature of the world and the nature of other people, and about the rightness or wrongness of decisions.” I can’t help feeling that he’s entertained by that ambiguity. Though we may be at sea in social relations, with nothing but our perceptions of others to anchor us, surely we can enjoy ourselves a little.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2020 as "Adversary effects".
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