The first thing to know about Scary Monsters is that it consists of two novellas bound top to tail within a single paperback. It’s a design decision that reinforces the world-turned-upside-down nature of the stories contained: one a narrative set in France – what that story’s narrator drolly labels le centre historique – and the other taking place in the ahistorical non-place of suburban Australia.
If there is a wormhole joining these hemispheres, it comes late in the French narrative, a novella entitled “Lili”. The eponymous narrator – a restlessly intelligent young Australian woman working as a high-school English teacher in Montpellier – recalls with a pang the subaltern attitude she and her migrant family adopted when they landed in Australia from South Asia in her childhood: “For a long time after arriving in Australia, my instinct had been to creep and pass unnoticed. Servants walk like that in their masters’ houses. It was never discussed in my family, but all three of us were hiding from something.”
Lili recalls her father’s tic of passing his hand over his face, her mother’s recourse to dark glasses, worn even indoors. “It was pure ostrich magic – not seeing and hoping not to be seen,” recalls Lili: “What exactly had the three of us feared? Nothing/everything – it was the fuzzy, underlying immigrant dread of punishment for being in the wrong place.”
The narrator of the antipodean novella is Lyle, and the homographic adjacency of his name to Lili’s is fully intended. The “Lyle” narrative is a darkly comic fantasia on the immigrant dread Lily describes in passing. It is a savage and surreal imagining of a phenomenon approached in realist terms in the French novella.
Reading “Lyle” first is to be plunged into a world with the colour saturation turned up. We’re in Melbourne’s outer-outer suburbs in the near future, a zone of strip malls and well-mown nature strips: a middle-class, cookie-cutter paradise where Lyle and his wife, Chanel, live in the soulless heart of the district on a street named Spumante Court. They’re also immigrants, though you wouldn’t know it from their assumed names.
In this future Australia, Islam is a proscribed religion; those of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, for example, are immediately suspect. And not only that: any mention of climate change and its effects has been outlawed. All communications are monitored by the state – indeed, Lyle works in a government department that red-flags suspicious types – and government “hatespokespersons” appear in the media to enforce the party line.
Such obligatory euphemism results in a diminished polity and a wounded environment. The city of Sydney has been partly abandoned due to coastal erosion and constant bushfires, while those of non-Anglo backgrounds live in constant fear of deportation, wherever they live.
The only person maintaining her real name and sense of self is Iris, Lyle’s mother, who emigrated years before to live with the family and help raise her grandchildren: Mel, now an architect by training, Chicago-based, though she really lives on planet Instagram; and Sydney, whose PhD has been abandoned in favour of an illegal eco-commune somewhere in New South Wales.
Lyle’s sense of self stutters under the dual onslaught of a mother who lives for purposes deeper and richer than his own and children determinedly grown away from the family. When Chanel is offered an apartment closer to the city by her employers – one they can only afford by encouraging his ailing mother to be euthanised under a new, state-mandated process – the vague moral quandary of his middle age becomes acute.
If Lyle’s is a cautionary tale about the wounds inflicted on migrants by the state and their own acts of collaboration with it, Lili’s narrative is concerned with freedom: the freedom of youth lingering on the threshold of adult life. Lili, a character who shares some of Michelle de Kretser’s real background and sensibility, describes this period of suspended potential with joyous, ironic, clear-eyed nostalgia. She displays tender contempt for the earnestness that accompanies our first travels and our first loves, when intensity of feeling arises from the lack of an experiential scale against which to measure one’s feelings. It is some of the most vivid prose de Kretser has produced.
While we should be wary of any fiction that parades its autobiographical credentials, the “Lili” novella is concerned with the education of an artist, as de Kretser would eventually become. With cool certainty, Lili realises that what she will one day become is a novelist and with that decision comes a way out of the same trap that Lyle fails to escape.
During her French sojourn, Lili watches the African men being cleared from the streets by local gendarmes. Lili thinks of her own brown skin when she hears of atrocities committed by French forces in Algiers. The monstrous state apparatus – Catholic, patriarchal and conservative – becomes conflated in her mind with her creepy and lecherous neighbour, and by white vans that shadow her walks home through darkened city streets.
Only counter-fantasies spun by Lili in response – imagining a persona for herself of an intrepid, gun-toting feminist named Daring Audrey – reassure her, the way, she says, “a lie can have the effect of a truth”. Which is pretty much how the German Jewish philosopher Adorno described art: “Magic liberated from the lie of being truth.”
If Lyle’s fiction is concerned with the deformations wrought by accepting the stories other people tell about us, then Lili’s quasi-autobiographical account is about the saving graces of making up your own. These are the same stories, perhaps, that would one day render de Kretser one of our most acute chroniclers of migrant experience and, with Patrick White, a savage critic of white Australian complacency.
Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 16, 2021 as "Scary Monsters, Michelle de Kretser".
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