By Wayne MacauleyFiction Text Publishing
Think The Decameron meets samurai-sharp social satire, as Wayne Macauley skewers a group of self-satisfied friends on a Great Ocean Road holiday, via an evening of winter storytelling in which they unwittingly tell stories against themselves.
Macauley proved himself a master satirist with The Cook, shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2012; like fellow Melburnian Christos Tsiolkas, he is a formidable voice raised in anger against the insular, materialistic, self-deluding tendencies of middle-class Australia. Here, his ire is generational, and it’s the baby boomers being dissected.
Seven friends escape modern society together for a weekend, setting rules about no internet, no phones and no television, getting back to the basics of oral storytelling. The suggestion comes from documentary filmmaker Megan, fresh from collecting and editing together Indigenous stories in the Northern Territory. But the intention of reaching greater truths and ‘getting real’ backfires spectacularly, as secrets are revealed and tensions come to a head.
‘Macauley’s characters have at last broken through to a truth that is intimate and raw, but the underlying causes of their dissatisfaction remain unaltered, and as potent as ever,’ writes the Sydney Review of Books of the novel’s climax.
This is a blistering critique of a society, a generation, and of the system that governs us (and our fealty to it).
A group of friends gather at a beach house on the Great Ocean Road for a winter weekend away. No phones, no internet, no TV. They are going to tell stories. So begins Macauley’s caustic examination of the mores and moralities of Middle Australia. With its echoes of The Decameron, Demons employs a marvelous framing device, and the group settle in with their food and their almost excellent wine, while a storm rages outside.
The stories they tell reveal a deep chasm in the psyche of their generation. Tales of suicide, grief, infidelity, murder, and greed. Marooned by the storm the weekend unravels, and Macauley, as neat as a surgeon, reveals the heart of his subjects, and there is darkness there.
They were going to tell stories. Let’s go away for the weekend, said Megan, and leave our phones behind and turn off the computers and the television and stop time because time is moving too fast and soon we’ll all be saying where the hell did our lives go? We’ll cook some food and drink some wine and each tell a story.
There would be no kids. No pets. No devices. The house belonged to Megan and Leon’s younger sister, Lucy—she and her husband, Tom, had moved to Sydney for work. A two-storey perched high on a hill overlooking the sea, just off the Great Ocean Road. A steep driveway, a carport at the top, three bedrooms up and one down. Same road in and out. A cantilevered balcony looking over the trees.
Megan and Evan got down about four, Adam and Lauren just after half past, Leon and Hannah a bit after that. They were living in the bush near Halls Gap now, in the stone cottage Leon built. By five o’clock the smell of slow-braised lamb already filled the house and the wood heater was blazing. It was the middle of winter, and the forecast was for rain. Megan was a filmmaker, documentaries mostly. Strong-boned, olive skin, no makeup, short brown hair. She’d been working with the communities up in the Territory, inter- viewing old people, editing down the footage and sending out group emails about how amazing it was to watch people tell their stories like that. We don’t know how to listen any more, she said. Well? What do you say? We’ll go down Friday night, come back Sunday. Maybe a couple of days together will be enough to get back to something real.
She was with Evan, a musician; short, lean, fit-looking but lately gone a bit to seed. He used to make his money as a cash-in-hand builder but was now doing up and selling. He was younger than Megan, forty-two, and still had all his hair. They had five kids between them, late teens to early twenties, including a daughter, Aria, from Evan’s first marriage.
Adam and Lauren had three kids. Their oldest, Oliver, a problem child, was in his last year of school. Adam was a lawyer, intellectual property, specialising in litigation. He wore his grey hair swept fashionably back, was pale, medium height, with not much fat on him. Clients commented on his pianist’s fingers. Lauren was in advocacy and travelled a lot; short, compact, dyed red hair and red lipstick. She went to the gym four nights a week no matter what city she was in. She wore rings and bangles, sensible shoes, had a pointed energy about her and a clipped way of speaking. They’d been together since uni.
Next there was Leon, Megan’s younger brother, stocky with a round face that had in its time been ravaged by drink but was now showing good signs of recovery. A journalist, retired. He was bald on top and what was left around the sides was razored to a shadow. There was something a bit distant about Leon. He’d beaten the grog with naturopathy, meditation and yoga and the cure had clung to him almost as persistently as the disease. Hannah, his girlfriend, his new girlfriend, was the youngest. She had long legs, Hannah, a long torso and long red hair. She was either wistful or stupid, depending where you stood. She wore a bit of dark around the eyes and a smear of gloss on the lips. They had no kids, together or apart.
The last of that group to agree to put aside that cold weekend in winter were Marshall and his wife, Jackie. Marshall was a politician, newly-elected; Jackie worked in events promotion. But by eight o’clock they still hadn’t showed.
Megan and Evan took the main bedroom, with the view of the sea. The other rooms were down the hallway past the bathroom with a view up through the trees. The latecomers got the bedroom downstairs. After everyone had unloaded their stuff and dropped the bags of food and drink in a row on the kitchen floor, Megan suggested a walk. The dark was coming down. She and Lauren, then Leon and Hannah, put on their hats and coats and scarves. Put the meat in the fridge! said Lauren, from the bottom of the stairs.
Evan found the cooler bag with the beer in it and twisted the top off two. Are you into this? he said. Adam put his beer on the bench and started unpacking the meat. I reckon we should have themes, said Evan, like politics or the environment or technology or love or something, otherwise everyone’s just going to rabbit on about any old crap. We should write down half-a-dozen and put them in a hat then someone chooses one and we tell stories about that. Then, if we’ve got the energy, we choose another one later.
They unloaded the shopping and went into the living room. It was warm in there now. At one end was a big set of windows and a sliding glass door that opened onto the balcony that looked out over the treetops to the sea. Two couches, four big armchairs and in the centre a low table of sea-worn timber with a stack of magazines and picture books on it.
Adam stood by the fire. On the wall behind was a painting in pastel tones of sky, sea and dune, the paint dripping from the border of one into the body of the other. Out in the real world, beyond the glass, the ocean was gun- metal grey with a violet sheen and a silver ripple and above it a sunset sky already deepening into dark. Adam slid the door back. The sea was loud, you could feel the thud of the waves. Rosellas screeched in the treetops, flew up, wheeled, then hurtled down the hill. What do I think? said Adam, belatedly. I think the idea of having themes and taking turns is stupid. This weekend we should throw away the rule book, let time stretch out before us. A different kind of time. Story time.
Story time! said Evan.
Yeah, said Adam, closing the door, because that’s the kind of time we’ve lost; everything now is frantic time, desperate time, snatched time. So this weekend we lie on the couch, smoke our pipes, let the pot bubble on the stove.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist