Malcolm Knox is the author of three novels, Summerland, A Private Man and Jamaica. He is also a Walkley Award-winning journalist and the author of one non-fiction book, Secrets of the Jury Room, an account of his experience as a juror, and a history of the jury system. He spoke to Fiona Capp about his latest, much-anticipated novel, The Life.
The first thing that hits you when you open Malcolm Knox’s The Life is the narrative voice. Half demotic poetry, half twitchy stream-of-consciousness, it plunges the reader into the head of the tormented, delusional Dennis Keith, a mercurial champion surfer-turned-recluse who now lives with his mother in a retirement unit in Coolangatta. Full of sly wordplay and ironic edgy bravado, it’s a voice that perfectly captures the eternally adolescent energy of surfing culture: a voice distilled from the conversations that Knox, himself a surfer, hears around him when he’s out in the water. ‘It’s not the Tim Winton voice that you hear in Breath – I think that Breath is beautifully written but these men don’t speak in a beautiful way. They speak in a rough, attenuated way with a limited vocabulary. It has its own rhythm and that’s what I wanted to trap,’ Knox says.
Ghostwriting sports biographies, as Knox does when he isn’t writing novels or journalism, has given him an ear for the idiosyncrasies of speech and a habit of playing ventriloquist. As a ghostwriter, however, he is not permitted to put the real voice of the subject on the page. ‘It’s got to be a conventional written voice. The constraints I was breaking free of were the constraints on voice. Here, I was able to put in all the grunts and non-sequiturs and repetitions, an essentially incoherent person’s voice. We’re not allowed to do that as a ghostwriter.’
There is a strong sense, in The Life, of the novelist letting rip, and of the exhilaration that goes with this abandon, particularly in the humour of the book which is sometimes manic, sometimes deadpan, and sometimes satirical. When surf magazines and filmmakers come looking for Dennis years after his breakdown, his mother, Mo, sends them packing. ‘I wasn’t available to say no. I was “incapacitated”, she meant to say, except what she said was, I was “decapitated”. When they come knocking – them magazines, biographers, movie scouts, so-called TV producers – Mo tell them “speak to our solicitors”. Then she give them a solicitor which don’t exist. That sent the right message sent it real well.’
This narrative risk-taking is fitting for a story about a character who is himself a risk-taker: a surfer of extreme daring and freakish talent who lives ‘The Life’ and then lives to regret it. For the surfers at Dennis’s local break, The Life is the dream of being free to do nothing but surf all day, every day, and implicitly, about buying into the myth of the hotshot surfer as a larger-than-life hero or ‘legend’. It’s a myth in which everyone from the surf media and surf industry to Dennis’s family and the general public is complicit.
Dennis Keith becomes that legend, known as the enigmatic DK, his signature line: ‘Well yeah ... but no!’ The fact that he’s riven with contradictions only adds to his aura. He’s desperate to prove he’s the best but can’t handle all the attention. (He is at his happiest inside the barrel of a wave where no one else can see him.) He wants the benefits of fame but longs to be left alone. He’s intensely territorial in the surf but despises the pack mentality; a surfer who hates other surfers. In other words, he has the freedom, says Knox, of the unhinged person to be passionately contradictory. ‘He’s a total believer in the violence and aggression of competition and a total rejecter of the violence of competition as well.’
But you can’t be insanely competitive – he is a compulsive, at times an almost homicidal, hassler and saboteur of his opponents in the water – and expect that there won’t be consequences. Nor can you escape the idolising, the scrutiny and the hero-worship that goes with fame. At the height of his success, everything starts to spiral out of control. He gets into drugs, his girlfriend is murdered, and he disappears from the surfing circuit and into the paranoid world of his head.
In this era of celebrity culture, Dennis’s fate is a cautionary tale for our times. ‘Updike said fame is a mask that eats into the face. We all know that, but it doesn’t stop most of us chasing it. I see DK as one of a generation that was discovering that fame is all cost, no benefit,’ says Knox. ‘I don’t know if he has an exceptional insight into it, but I like that DK is ironic about it; he certainly isn’t chasing it. Yet his talent made adulation impossible to avoid.’
Knox well understands the contradictions inherent in DK’s competitive spirit. ‘One thing I guess I have in common with him is in being extremely competitive when it comes to a ritual with set rules and boundaries. I am a crap tennis player, for example, but on the court I will still do everything in my power to destroy you, while also detesting competitiveness in the wider sense of people comparing where they are “at” in their lives, what they own, and so on. DK’s problem is that his excellence in the former kind of competitiveness means the world will foist the latter kind on to him: turn him into a hero when the idea of a hero, being compared with others, and owned by others, is his idea of hell.’
Knox set the novel in the 1960s and 70s in order to explore surf culture at a key moment when it was morphing from a laid-back pastime into an organised, commercialised, professional sport. This transformation is mirrored in the transformation of Coolangatta from a modest coastal town of fibro shacks into the concrete jungle of the Gold Coast. While his satirical target is the dark side of surf culture – the aggression, competitiveness, tribal mentality, territoriality and drugs (the sexism doesn’t get much of a look in) – The Life can also be read more generally as a satire on the competitiveness of modern life, a competitiveness which he believes we do our best to mask. He sees this competitiveness in everything from driving in traffic to corporate life to the way we raise our children. ‘I know I’m generalising, but I do see a big change having happened in my lifetime. Eastern cities are more affluent, more desperate places. The mass cultural competitiveness which took a breather in the 60s and early 70s was beginning to cough itself back to life in DK’s time, until you get to the stage now where a cultural phenomenon like Mad Men rings such a bell because people recognise the hyper-competitiveness of the 50s as part of the way we live now.’
Just as Knox shares aspects of DK’s competitiveness, so too does he understand the impulse to idolise one’s heroes. Writing in The Monthly about the American cult author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, he frankly admits to being a ‘howling fantod’ – a Wallacism devotees use to describe themselves – and to regarding Wallace as a towering genius. Asked about Wallace’s influence on The Life, he says, ‘For me, when I read David Foster Wallace, every time I look up from the page I feel sharpened and more receptive. I feel like I want to write. Not necessarily that I want to write like him, or could write like him. I feel that writing is important.’ He also admires Wallace’s humour, the mix of high and low cultural references. ‘While he is brainier than me or anybody I can imagine, he’s not a high-falutin’ kind of speaker, there’s no effort to rise above the ordinary vernacular.’
Which brings us back to the defining quality of The Life: DK’s distinctive voice. At first glance, the way the narrative appears on the page – the truncated, disjointed, often single-line sentences set out like prose poetry – gives the impression that this is going to be a demanding or difficult read. And yet, such is the pull of this voice, like a rip traveling out through the surf, that the reader is quickly drawn into DK’s world with all its outrageous, treacherous and bewildering undercurrents. We watch with appalled fascination as Dennis, who has been living in a state of pathological denial, starts to grapple ‘in fear and trembling’ with the dark truths of his past.
Fiona Capp is a novelist and a surfer — author of the captivating memoir That Oceanic Feeling. Her latest book is My Blood's Country.