Sweeney and the Bicycles
Philip Salom’s latest novel, Sweeney and the Bicycles, is about a man who collects bicycles. This is not, however, a novel about a Lycra-clad, hyper-masculine cycling devotee. Sweeney is a “bicycle romantic”. He prefers brightly coloured fixed-gear bikes, the type that often come with a basket. He likes riding these “beautiful” bikes through the streets of Melbourne’s Parkville when it is coloured by autumn as if by “a French Impressionist”. Sweeney is also a thief. He wears makeup designed to confound the algorithms of surveillance cameras. And the bikes he rides are stolen.
Despite his feminine, middle-class sensibility, we learn that Sweeney is fresh out of jail – for holding up a pharmacy rather than unpicking combination locks. Sweeney is not, it seems, merely an eccentric. However, unlike his namesake in the T. S. Eliot poem “Sweeney and the Nightingales”, he is hardly a degenerate. Neither are the characters he has befriended at a nearby rooming house, such as The Sheriff, a “stringy guy in a tight white singlet and tight blue jeans” for whom “prison and violence are his understanding of nostalgia”. In this description we see Salom’s talent for pith and insight when it comes to characterisation, but also for the line he treads between creating characters and caricatures. Salom’s intentions here, though, are serious. His interest is in humanising and understanding perpetrators of crime – a job given to another character, Asha Sen, a psychiatrist Sweeney begins to visit.
In his sessions with Dr Sen, we learn about Sweeney’s traumatic life and an awful lot about the therapeutic process of eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). At this point the novel moves away from the whimsy of the early pages into a study of trauma and its treatment, largely through extensive dialogue between doctor and patient. The novel also begins to demonstrate a fascinating interest in the privacy and sanctity of the individual, not only in the psychoanalytic setting but also in the context of surveillance culture. This equation between psychoanalysis and surveillance is underscored through explicit conversations that Dr Sen has with her husband, “whose career is the daily sucking of public identity, person by person, into the Government database”. Their marriage isn’t exactly happy, but this novel is ultimately a romance. Sweeney, our hero, falls in love.
Does Salom resolve the tension between playfulness and seriousness? Does he labour some of his dialogue? Did the novel have to be quite so long? Such doubts are all part of this weird and wonderful ride.
Transit Lounge, 408pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Sweeney and the Bicycles, Philip Salom".
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