By Wayne MacauleyFiction Text Publishing
Wayne Macauley has long been known, in Melbourne literary circles, as a ‘writer’s writer’, admired for his inventive stories and subversive wit. His third book, The Cook (his first from a major publisher) has brought him a wider readership, but it’s by no means less experimental than his earlier outings.
His satirical vision skewers a society virtually interchangeable with our own – one where our worship of food (and gluttony) is out of all proportion, as is the disconnect between where food comes from and how it appears on our plates.
Cook School is a rural home for wayward boys, located an hour and a half out of Melbourne. The young charges are taught to raise, grow, slaughter and prepare food, to the exacting standards of the celebrity Head Chef. Mastery of food (and ‘power through service’) is presented as a ladder out of disadvantage, an opportunity for success. It’s an opportunity that teenage narrator Zac grasps with both hands, as he excels – and gets himself a job serving a wealthy family, in more ways than he bargains for.
While this is, above all, a novel of ideas, it’s distinguished by its style as much as its content. Macauley captures the voice of an uneducated, driven teenager with an eerily precise ventriloquism that draws the reader in from the first pages, seducing and then forcing us to identify with him (or, in reality TV speak, to go on his ‘journey’).
While The Cook brilliantly satirises – and questions – our obsession with MasterChef, celebrity chefs and designer produce, food is the vehicle rather than the subject for Macauley. The harder, more confronting questions concern class, ambition and our definitions of success, as Zac discovers what he will do and how far he will go to achieve what he wants.
The Cook is a savage and hilarious satire, a wickedly funny dissection of a society obsessed with status and warped by conspicuous consumption. Set in a reforming ‘cook school’ that shrewdly conflates the strict institutional discipline of a penal institution with the decadent cult of the foodie, the novel evokes the hothouse atmosphere that is characteristic of the sinister panopticon of reality television and skewers the pretensions of a hierarchical social order such that, having read it, one will never see MasterChef in quite the same way again.
Macauley has created a voice for his ambitious anti-hero Zac that is supple, insinuating and distinctly Australian. The narration is masterful in its ability to capture the insistent rhythms of the demotic and to hint at the psychological instability that lurks beneath Zac’s laconic surface.
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Renowned continental gastronome and waggish food writer of the early 1800s, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, is responsible for the bon mot, ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’ If we are to give any credence to these words, and then apply it to the food and the people who eat it in Wayne Macauley’s novel The Cook – the latest offering from the fiction writer who might easily be considered Australia’s most revolutionary, in all understandings of the word – then ‘foodies’ and food-minded people of Australia (and Western society in general, whatever ‘Western’ means) are convoluted, confused, and much, much, much too rich.
The Cook is the story of from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks Zac, a troubled and dark 18-year-old who finds himself at Cook School, and on the apparent (to himself, mostly) fast-track to becoming a master chef. Cook School, where Zac spends eight months under the unwatchful eye of a recognisably arrogant and distracted celebrity chef, Head Chef, is a place of peace: where fruit and vegetables spring from the earth and livestock roams. It is also the place where Zac learns that slaughter is just one stage in the development of the perfect dish.
Zac’s deadpan and relentless style of narration (there is not a comma to be found throughout the book; Macauley eschews proper sentence structure and grammar expectations in a stylistic gambit that forces the reader to either quit and walk away, or else become fully and frighteningly immersed, and I frankly can’t imagine after a page or two many people choosing to give up) is more than just affect: by not pausing for breath, Zac, and the narrative itself, is in much deeper, and much quicker, so much so that retreat seems just about impossible. And yet, even though Zac’s somewhat uneducated and blunt voice never veers, not even for a word, there is much poetry and skilled plaiting of language to be found, and savoured.
Head Chef at Cook School I said carefully told us we need to subjugate ourselves to become strong that means I said we should never forget that our purpose is to serve that’s what gives what we do meaning. The Mistress went quiet then I don’t know if it was because I mentioned service like that or Head Chef I could be sure. I decided to be careful and keep my mouth shut silence is service too.
The second half of the novel finds Zac thrust into the position of personal cook to an upper-class suburban family. These people are each repellent in their own way. They are also completely and miserably real. Macauley’s ability to flesh out these characters – and a raft of others who collectively subsist at every part of the spectrum of contemporary society – is simply exceptional. And the denouement of The Cook, one that in hindsight could be seen as inevitable, although it is in no way pivotal, is handled with truly enviable skill.
This remarkable submarine (of the nautical, not the sandwich, variety) style attack by Macauley on the laissez-faire capitalist mode that governs the food and service industry – and wider society, by extension – is at once deliberate and overt, and somehow at the same time totally subsumed within the storyline. And it stings. It seems that the truth is the truth is only ever the truth, even if it could be charged with having a political bent. The callousness and wastefulness and greed that trickles through much of contemporary life, seen in our financial, economic and social systems, is held up under Macauley’s microscope, and slap me with a spatula if it doesn’t look wholly unpalatable. If even basic home cooking now extends to the molecular, then this work of fiction matches such focus, and the result is something most rancid.
(Mention also must be made of yet another exceptional W.H. Chong cover, which, like every single one of his designs, transcends the notion that a book cover is something that is merely either a page protector or eye-grabber or information delivery system [although his cover these necessary bases]; instead it can be considered as a stand-alone work of art.)
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