When faced with our difficult present, we sometimes turn to the past and swaddle ourselves in nostalgia for whichever time our personal tastes elect as having been “better”. Factory 19, Dennis Glover’s second novel, is a story in which this impulse is enacted on a grand scale.
A David Walsh-like character named Dundas Faussett and his new wife, Bobbie Bellchamber, blame digital technology and the gig economy for much of human misery. They use Faussett’s gambling wealth to create a time-bubble in Tasmania, where everyone who comes to stay must dress, speak, work and live meticulously as if it is March 1948 – before computers really got going. The community is built around a factory, where they will produce items from that time, including cars, typewriters and cans of soup. Our narrator, Paul Richey, a millennial speechwriter who has suffered a new kind of health breakdown from overexposure to digital technology, becomes one of the many people taken in by Factory 19 and its promise of a happier life.
The novel makes some early gestures towards satirising our current age, but as we move into the Factory 19 world, the satire drops away and the tone shifts to wholehearted fantasising. A huge portion of the story is taken up simply describing surface attributes of life in 1948 Australia – fashion, food, manners, speech, and occasionally mores. Wherever we turn there are good wool suits, corned beef, warm ale and excessive mentions of “elevenses”. Yes, people have job security, but if the more superficial aspects of 1948 don’t do it for you, the book starts to lose its centre. We are assured the people at Factory 19 love it there and are happy, and that the wider world is captured by the dream: Factory 19’s wares are in high demand, and the tech companies take a blow. But just as nostalgia often doesn’t withstand scrutiny, the fiction here remains skin-deep. Fuller characters and a more purposeful plot might have persuaded readers of the real and still-retrievable lessons we could learn from the way people lived in 1948.
In the end, it is implied that nostalgia is a madness of sorts. After what has gone before, this leaves the story in disagreement with itself. Blurred in intent in this way, Factory 19 reads above all as an attempt to come to terms with a truth its audience may already understand: that we can’t go back.
Black Inc, 368pp, $32.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2020 as "Dennis Glover, Factory 19".
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