A Cook, A Caravan, A Canoe

SJ Finn on the real and mythical, the bizarre and banal in Wayne Macauley’s writing.

I buy Australian literary magazines as often as I can. This is because I love reading them. And because there is that small issue of those magazines needing all the monetary support they can get: a testimony, perhaps, to the difficulty of knowing what true value is in a modern world.

Over and above general pleasure, there are occasions when my appreciation soars. The publication of Wayne Macauley’s short story ‘Keilor Cranium’ in Meanjin late last year was one such instance, and I remembered why I have been drawn to this writer over the years. Like one critic from The Bulletin wrote of Macauley’s first novel, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe: ‘[L]ike falling into a bale of barbed wire in the dark and fighting to get out till morning. The more I struggled, the more it got under my skin.’

The reader consuming ‘Keilor Cranium’ could be forgiven for thinking that the piece is non-fiction, certainly at first anyway. It starts with a fact about the actual discovery of an Aboriginal skull by a man called James White in 1940 near the Maribyrnong River. Slowly, however, the story, which is about the quest to find a missing piece of the artefact, becomes a tale about suburban endeavour – an endeavour both serious and curious, straightforward and paradoxical; a story that brings up questions about our modern lives.

Traversing the ordinary and drawing out the peculiar is the hallmark of Macauley’s three novels. From the housing estate in Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe – so ubiquitous in Australia and never more so than in the sprawling city of Melbourne – to the domestic community in Caravan Story, Macauley travels the landscape of the common experience with almost sublime casualness. All of this is interlaced with an ascending incongruity that can sometimes stretch to the bizarre, and his ability to suspend the reader there in that strange but familiar world creates a wonderful Orwellian reality.

Macauley’s latest novel, The Cook, is no exception. Here, a young man, Zac, joins a program that is designed to teach the disenfranchised to become chefs. We discover the concerns and affectations of our narrator, and, while we might assume that Zac has every reason to be angry, he behaves in an exemplary, if not somewhat mechanical, manner. Zac is courteous and hardworking, not to mention devoted to his superiors. These unexpected sentiments make him both compelling and uncertain, as we find Zac to be a compendium of sincerity:

There is a knife for everything not like at home where one will do we have to learn about them all. Also the pots I have never seen so many pots. And frying pans. Fabian made a pasta bang bang bang you should see how fast he goes! When he finished he handed it around we each had a taste it was nice but a bit spicy for me. Some of the kids held their forks with a fist you could see Fabian’s face but he didn’t say anything because it’s early days and we’re still learning those kids will get it eventually.

Macauley sets the tone of the everyday by his use of language. The Cook is completely devoid of commas, and the rolling sentences work to both relax and alert the reader. They put us at the centre of something which might best be described as a little odd. We know things about the protagonist: his low socio-economic background, his lack of formal education, his energetic, bright and personable traits, but we’re never quite sure we understand him. Our feet might be on the ground but they may also be disconcertingly inserted in it.

Stylistically, Macauley has been compared to Robert Walser, the German-speaking Swiss writer (and indeed Walser’s 1909 modernist novel, Jakob von Gunten, provides the epigraph for The Cook). Comparisons between the two books make sense. In Jakob von Gunten, Walser’s long, laconic sentences show the reader how astutely amenable Jakob is, while depicting the protagonist and his place in the world with disquieting precision. The novel begins: ‘One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we will all be something very small and insubordinate later in life.’

Where the two writers diverge is in the dark force that Macauley sculpts out of his benign dioramas. The Cook, for example, tracks the meticulous care Zac takes as he prepares live animals for the cooking class by feeding them flavoursome foods. The details of their slaughter are then presented with cold exactness. Later in the book, a local butcher continues his personable service to wealthy housewives despite their failure to pay him, resulting in a growing amount of credit. This interlacing of care and destruction occurs to great effect in The Cook. The wholesome and diabolical are held in the same hand and, like every good fable, this sense of foreboding lingers on.

Uncomfortably recognisable, Macauley’s stories remind us of the predicaments our communities face, whether we are talking about those who settle in the vast suburbs we construct (Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe) or those who live as artists (Caravan Story) or the marginalised (The Cook). The easy language and familiar scenes lead us along a path where the bizarre becomes purposeful, and where the rhythm, both new and offbeat, reverberates long after the covers have been closed.

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