Meg Mundell has been a Melbourne-based working writer for over a decade, with her features published in The Age, The Monthly, The Big Issue and elsewhere, and her fiction appearing in Meanjin and Best Australian Stories 2010. Local novelist and publishing identity Sophie Cunningham, who published Meg’s fiction in her recent role as editor of Meanjin, talks to her about her gripping dystopian debut novel Black Glass.
Once you’ve read Meg Mundell’s debut novel Black Glass, you won’t look at Melbourne quite the same way again. Set in a city that is either Melbourne in a parallel universe, or in the near future, the effect is like a shadow version of the author’s hometown. A country girl from New Zealand, Mundell has lived in Melbourne for over ten years now and her explorations inform the novel. ‘I go bike riding around under the Westgate a lot. It’s so atmospheric with all the freeways overhead … I once went up the Maribyrnong on a boat. We found these old shipyards and they were just beautiful. It’s an interesting part of the city because there’s lots of forgotten space, and lots of guarded space.’
Barack Obama is President of the US, Neighbours is on the television, Cate Blanchett is old, Docklands is derelict and surveillance systems are more intrusive than they are today. The city’s ‘undocs’ – people without papers who are usually homeless – are trying to survive on the fringes of the CBD and just to the south and west; around Melbourne’s docks, under the Westgate and around the Maribyrnong. It’s the unsettling combination of the known and the unknown that gives Mundell’s work a real edge.
Mundell says she ‘took the geography of Melbourne as I remembered and imagined it … pieces of Melbourne transplanted, but then when I finished I got out a Melways and drew this big map of the whole setting of the novel and plotted out where everything happened. I wanted to capture it without being too specific. I walk around a lot but I’m not good with time. I go into a dream and it’s more the feel of the place that I remember.’ That dream-like knowing infuses Black Glass.
The title suggests a world seen through the opposite of rose-coloured glasses and deliberately echoes the biblical saying ‘Through a Glass Darkly’. It also references Phillip K. Dick’s Through a Scanner Darkly. Certainly Black Glass shifts your vision slightly, and in doing so creates a dramatic new perspective. It is, like Dick’s novel, dystopian fiction, though that was not Mundell’s intention. ‘I wasn’t thinking of it as genre, it just happened that way. I read a lot of John Wyndham as a kid and I guess that rubbed off.’
Tally and Grace are the heart of Black Glass. The teenage sisters are separated by an accident that takes place in the opening pages of the novel. They have been living in the country but go to Melbourne in search of each other. The girls ‘were really the first things that came. They always felt really real and strong for me. Especially Tally. Tally became quite bossy. She started to take over. I had to think my way more into the headspace Grace would be in given what happened. She’d be a bit numbed, I thought.’ Grace is 15, beautiful, and very vulnerable. Tally is tougher, 13, and a bit of tomboy. In some scenes she could just as well be a street urchin in Victorian London as a heroine of the new world order. She is taken under the wing of a young man, Blue, who shows her the ropes of her new life, a life now full of secret tunnels and dangerous cash-in-hand jobs:
The entrance to the old rail tunnel was all but invisible. In a corner of the Docklands, past the empty towers and overflowing bins, an ancient pair of railway tracks, blackened with age and lichen, led to a dead-end tangle of vines. Blue tugged aside a piece of plywood, and there was the hole. Tally laced up the sneakers, belted her detective coat tight and glanced back through the gap and followed Blue into the dark.
Despite living rough, Blue is a gentle presence in the novel. ‘I didn’t deliberately make Blue Aboriginal,’ Mundell told me. ‘He just popped up. I didn’t set out to address issues. I just wanted to tell the stories of people at disadvantage but they still struggled to survive and still had hope. There was one thing I wanted to get across. You can’t really tell much about people by looking at them.’
The idea that you can’t judge people by their appearance is strong through Black Glass. Both sisters take to wearing costumes that allow them to perform in their new roles, leaving the reader in fear that even if the girls find each other they may not recognise each other. The first time I saw Mundell she was in a costume also: she was at a pitching competition at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival wearing overalls which helped her, so she says, get into character for the book she’s finishing now: ‘It’s partly a collection of road stories from truckies and it’s threaded together with my narrative of three months of travelling around. I promised my mother I wouldn’t hitch and did try not to, because I wanted to have more control over who I travelled with. But I had to a couple of times. Mostly the men were quite lonely and were happy to chat. There were a few dicey moments – but more funny ones. When I did the trucking trip I dyed my hair dark red. No make-up. Dressed quite dowdily. I’m aware of how people read you based on how they see you.’
Mundell worked as a journalist for four-and-a-half years at The Big Issue and says that being around the vendors probably influenced some of the themes in this book. Being a journalist also informed her writing of Damon. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s struggling with the pressures of working with media agencies that abdicate all care and responsibility, leaving such concerns to their erratically-paid band of freelance journos – men and women who are left to scramble and compete for a living like bounty hunters from the American Wild West. ‘Damon is my very cynical take on where freelance journalism is going. He’s drawn from my own experience of having been in a position where journalism occupied one place but has drifted to another, something towards entertainment.’
The most mercurial of Black Glass’s characters is Milk. He’s a man with a God complex or, as he would see it, a choreographer of emotions – a veritable Mozart. From hidden booths at casinos, parties and public events he manipulates crowds using smell and sound. He does this so tenderly it takes you a long time to realise just how appalling what he’s doing really is. This hijacking of our senses and subtle use of surveillance combines two long-standing areas of fascination for Mundell. ‘There are instances of using smell and music to influence purchasing decisions. It’s kind of invisible. We live in such a visual culture that we ignore it, but smell taps into the limbic system, which is connected to memory and libido. For me crowd control is a logical next step because public space is now a commodity.’
Black Glass is thoughtful, intelligent fiction. But while dense with ideas, it’s wry, not heavy-handed – much like Mundell herself. And while it may (or may not) be set in the future, the novel’s sensibility is old-fashioned in the most touching of ways: in this shadow Melbourne, connection, love and friendship are all.