The Cook by Wayne Macauley
The first I knew about this, Wayne Macauley’s third novel, was after he gave a reading at last year’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival (from his short-story collection Other Stories). Knowing how keen I had been on his previous work, Wayne intimated he was working on a significantly longer piece of writing than heretofore, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was yet. A few months passed, then I heard the news that he had been signed by a leading independent publisher (Text) for the new book. Fantastic news, of course, for a writer with significant critical acclaim among followers of new Australian writing, but not much of a public profile.
So now we have the finished product, the enthralling The Cook. I was in a bit of a quandary though when it came to reviewing it. I had endorsed his work before (and these quotes actually grace the covers of a couple of his previous books). Would some sort of glowing tribute though only serve to inadvertently continue his ghettoisation on the cultural margins, however?
Instead I thought the most suitable form of compliment would be to give some sense of the book’s madcap - but at the same time breathtakingly poetic and compelling - narrative voice (of the 17 year- old, wannabe Michelin chef Zac) and a version at least of its satiric intent around our society’s cult of the individual.
So a fore-taste follows…of a book that if I had my way would be on the dinner-table of each and every of the Masterchef generation! And a timely wake-up call for all of us to reflect on our values in our media-saturated, overtly materialist culture.
“Is it a comedy, or is it a tragedy?”, Thomas Bernhard would have asked. Macauley, who is never one to shy away from cultural criticism (and who owes no small debt to the Austrian master of course, offering a tribute of sorts here with The Cook’s monologic structure), shows again how he always has a critical chopping board up to the task.
(with thanks to Estelle Tang for the (unwitting) inspiration, and of course the words of Wayne Macauley)
“The Cook” that’s what I want to be learn how to arrange beautiful food on a plate and a beautiful world is yours and this Wayne Macauley chap - some Brunswick guy you know the type arts council hand-outs plays in backstreet bohemian theatres stories too I think they even read him in schools but I got out of there don’t you worry or they didn’t want me back same diff but I am now on the path I shall rise above my humble station I’m going to a cook school a chef off the telly runs it me and the others (sixteen of us all stupid kids from shitkicking suburbs) we don’t know the first thing but no matter. This is the ticket out or at least I think so I’m not going to be a loser anymore. We don’t see much of our tutor Head Chef though Fabian his assistant runs the classes assisted by Terry face like a primate out in the shed who shows us how to butcher or slaughter he’s so quick either word will do. Gary cooks us our grub now there’s a ne'er-do-well an example to us all. Head Chef is pretty inspiring though when he does drop in “power through service” he says I’m from a crappy suburb too this is our lifeline we better believe it if we’re going to have to polish the boots of the master that is the paying customer in our restaurant why not learn to polish them really well?
So as I was saying this Wayne character has written a book about a guy just like me I might read it I’ve got some leisure-time he talks about my mate Hunter apparently he saw things a bit differently even thought we were part of a reality TV show peddling some what did he call it ‘ideology’ whatever he ended up choosing a life on the land and peasant food and where’s the dosh in that? No house overlooking the ocean no beautiful wife no three kids for you mate! We like to believe we’re all equal. We’re not I’m sure we never were was the convict getting buggered by the trooper? Good for me then that I got the job in leafy Melbourne cooking for that rich family the Mistress spoke French half the time in fact and did life drawing in the gazebo in the afternoons now that’s sophistication she understood see insouciance it’s a way of life. But the daughters though they were a worry the older one reckoned I was a slave she got infected at uni doing soft-cock arts subjects but Dad understands he said when I was my age he only had one wish and that was to be filthy rich. I call him the Master and that’s what I’ll be one day too.
It’s quite a journey my one I’ll grant you that poetic almost and not without a belly-laugh or two. Wayne’s right you’ll never look at an amuse choses quite the same way after reading this book or a rectangular dinner plate for that matter but for all the cruel thinking crawling out of the swamp and what have you I think he might just be on to something. For all my raising society up there’s a fair few there that have fallen by the wayside, aren’t there? But I have a dream still it’s white walls clean benches blue sky blue sea blue paintings white seashells in a bowl. I’ll be all over the papers tomorrow and the magazines after that. The papers the magazines the telly then all over the net. I reckon not a day will go by without Wayne having more yolk for his fictional souffle. Arrange beautiful food on a plate and a beautiful world is yours Wayne’s learnt from that.
Martin Shaw, Readings’ Books Division Manager, is what they call a “career bookseller”, which might be an interesting concept as the world turns “E”. Formerly an avid fiction reader, now “Jolly Jumper” supervisor to an adorable 7-month-old. Follow him on twitter - @thebooksdesk