Wayne Macauley’s work has been enthusiastically whispered about on the Melbourne literary circuit for some years now. His books include last year’s much-acclaimed short-story collection, Other Stories and the novels Blueprints for a Barbed Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, all published by small Fitzroy publisher Black Pepper Press. Macauley’s long-time fans have included Readings’ Martin Shaw and our regular reviewer Emmett Stinson, among others. Now, he looks set to reach a far wider readership, with his third novel, The Cook, his first with Text Publishing. Noted satirist Ben Pobjie spoke to Wayne about his dark, wickedly clever new satirical novel for Readings.
So here I am and no going back. Thus begins Wayne Macauley’s The Cook, and it lives up to that promise: from that foreboding opening line to the haunting final sentence, Macauley maintains a relentless forward momentum. The hero of the tale (if hero is the right word, which it is ... and then again it isn’t) is Zac, a boy with no interest in looking behind him. This obsessive drive powers a narrative that resonates with topicality, unsettles with dread, and provokes black laughter and squirmy familiarity.
Wayne Macauley doesn’t have a foodie background, but he didn’t find this a handicap in researching for The Cook – ‘in a way the research was easy’ – because of what he calls the ‘ubiquitous’ nature of the food industry in today’s society. And it’s true that these days popular culture is infested with food, cooking, recipes and celebrity chefs. ‘I think it’s a socio-cultural thing that’s going on, and as a writer who has his antenna up, I’ve been alert to this for a while,’ says Macauley of the exalted place the chef now occupies. Yet fiction dealing with the food industry has been relatively thin on the ground. This book may start a trend – although the industry may object. To say The Cook explores the dark side of cooking would be an understatement.
The book begins with Zac, a poor teenager from a ‘shitkicking suburb’, finding himself at Cook School, a rural training facility set up to help disadvantaged youths. Cook School is the brainchild of the ominously never-named Head Chef, a famous chef who is only rarely seen at his own school, but whose vision of ‘Power through service’ Zac quickly latches on to. Zac completely absorbs the message that by subjugating and humiliating himself, he can escape his under-privileged past and achieve fame and fortune. He decides to emulate Head Chef, and determines that nothing will stand in his way.
Macauley fills his story with French phrases, discussions of cooking techniques and cuts of meat, yet it would be selling The Cook short to say it’s ‘about cooking’. As the author attests, it’s a novel that examines the decadence that attends civilisations in their twilight years. In explaining the ideas behind the book, Macauley references the Roman Empire and the Weimar Republic, the ‘end of times feeling in the air … the reaction is to eat, drink and be merry’. He notes the irony of the ‘explosion in fine dining at a time when the economy is in turmoil’. It’s that Masque of the Red Death-style decadence that Zac seeks to exploit in his efforts to rise to the top of his chosen profession, and it’s that decadence Macauley skewers; his satirist’s senses finely attuned to Western society’s excesses. The Cook shows Macauley as an author particularly concerned with the detachment from humanity that materialism can bring about.
That detachment is personified in Zac, a young man Macauley sees in a ‘historical vacuum’, who knows nothing but the urge to follow his dream – to become, through service, the guy on the telly. ‘Without telly we are nothing,’ as Head Chef’s assistant says early on.
The most enjoyable part of speaking to Wayne Macauley is just how enthusiastic he is about his lead character. Perhaps not surprising – after all, he has ‘lived with him for three years’ – but it’s striking how the author admires his creation, with all his flaws. And the flaws are big, but there’s also much to relate to, and when Macauley talks about him, it’s not so much an author talking about a character, as one man speaking approvingly, if critically, about another. Macauley clearly has a lot of affection for Zac, even while noting how he has ‘closed down’ – he is, in a way, a broken human being.
The narrow focus of Zac’s worldview is enhanced through Macauley’s idiosyncratic style – no commas, no quotation marks – which creates a cascading stream-of-consciousness narrative where Zac’s thoughts tumble one after the other, interrupting themselves, dialogue scurrying and jumbling into sentences, rushing with that forward momentum that epitomises both Zac’s attitude to life and the industry he’s in. The effect can jar at first, but quickly settles into a compelling rhythm, pushing the reader forward as surely as it pushes the protagonist. More than that, it makes for a decidedly unique authorial voice – there is no doubt that it is always Zac we are hearing, as he is and as he sees it.
Macauley bravely never breaks with this voice, carrying it through from beginning to end. He says it was an issue he wrestled with throughout the editorial process, but ultimately he needed to maintain the impression of ‘thoughts racing … quicksilver thinking’. That kind of mindset, so typical of a high-achiever in the culinary world, was the essence of Zac, and Macauley wanted to show that the adrenalin-fuelled world of cooking ‘would suit him’.
It’s the mark of a confident writer to be so uncompromising, even in the knowledge that by putting faith in his readers to buy into this unusual style, he’s taking a risk, and it pays off, infusing the novel with an otherness that turns superficially familiar and mundane settings into sinister worlds.
For it’s not just Zac’s focus which is narrow – Macauley has, in his own words, developed a ‘self-contained world’. Cook School may only be an hour and a half outside Melbourne, but it’s an alien landscape. While Zac is there, there are few hints at what’s going on elsewhere in the world. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the early scenes of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go – a peaceful, almost idyllic setting, but with an unsettling sense of fear lurking somewhere in the background. There’s nothing supernatural about Cook School, but the feeling of dread grows, until the post-apocalyptic rural dystopia of the school gives way to gothic horror at the luxurious mansion where Zac finds himself employed as cook.
The lack of external context makes it all the more disconcerting when we are shown a glimpse – what the author refers to as a ‘long-shot of the outside world … only at that point you realise you’re living in a tiny circumscribed world’. Zac exists entirely in that tiny world – he doesn’t go out, he doesn’t see movies, he doesn’t watch TV. It’s all cooking and preparation and recipes and chasing that dream; there is nothing else. We can all empathise with that aspiration to something better, the drive to follow your dream – we find ourselves applauding it, as Zac develops his skills and starts his road to the top. It’s only later we realise the frightful consequences of such a single-minded passion were always inevitable, even while we were cheering him on towards it.
Here is where Macauley’s satire is sharpest and most savage: Orwellian in its cautionary nature, but more realistic – and more amusing. Macauley spins his story in extreme, surreal, even absurd ways; but the events always remain disturbingly familiar, and distressingly close to the reality we know. Macauley states that his approach is ‘if something is possible, it can be actual in terms of fiction … if it’s possible, then it is, and I’ll tell it’. It takes little imagination to feel that the novel’s situations could be happening somewhere, and the book cuts deepest in its suggestion that the world of Zac is our own.
‘Not everyone understands the idea of provenance,’ says Zac. When he learns to slaughter animals for food, he learns where food comes from, and what must be done to provide it. Macauley wants us to question a society where most of us live several steps removed from the processes required for our comfortable lives, processes we would rather not think about. To get meat we must kill something; to get a master chef we must mould a poor kid with a dream. Macauley challenges us: how detached from the reality of our lives do we want to be? Just how far would we be willing to go to reach the top? And once there, will we find what we wanted? As Zac’s ‘Master’ says, getting rich was easy – what’s hard is ‘staying as rich as you’ve ever been’. Similarly, Zac cannot contemplate going backwards – he will be a famous chef. No matter what. This seductive can-do attitude sucks us in and then turns on us, devastatingly, and we wonder: just what value is there in ambition after all?
Macauley’s skill shines throughout The Cook – like a chef himself, he has a winning knack for turning seemingly ordinary ingredients into a masterpiece: in this case, a cracking story that also demands the reader engage their brain for some tough questions. Hopefully that knack is about to bring him wide acclaim.
Ben Pobjie is a regular satirical columnist for The Age and the author of Superchef: A Parody.
Wayne Macauley will be in conversation with Chris Flynn at the launch of The Cook at Readings Carlton on Wednesday 19 October at 6.30pm. This is a free event. All welcome, but please book on 9347 6633 or RSVP on Facebook.
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