Sunday, February 10, 2008

Chemical Palace

by Fiona McGregor 
Allen & Unwin 2002

The novel traces the lives of half a dozen Sydney fringe-dwellers, Bee, Billy, Slip, Jimi, the Professor and traffic as they flow through two decades of the inner city. The characters work bars, play in bands, dj at dance parties and deal drugs. Most of them are queer. They are creative people, and sometimes spend pages together arranging the decorations for their latest party. traffic (with a lowercase name) is the main character. Her vitality is infectious. It is through here that the multiplicity of other characters are entwined.

The book weighs in at almost 400 pages, but don't expect much in the way of a plot. traffic falls in and out of love and lust. Homes moves down the coast of New South Wales. There are many poignant descriptive passages; often these centre around a couple in bed or at home. Occasionally events build upon each other, then the tension elapses in a natural way. It's important not to merely read this novel like an ordinary book. In resemblance to the classic Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, it is just as enjoyable to open the book at a random spot and begin reading.

The stylistic specialisation of Chemical Palace are innumerable. The format is as sartorially conscious as its characters. There are no chapters. Instead, frequent page breaks distinguish periods of focus upon individual characters. It smells of an age where the written word is appearing increasingly and irretrievably in electronic mediums. Occasionally whole pages of the novel are devoted to the representation of flyers, newspaper articles and song lyrics. One such page is “useful activities for the restless speed freak”, another two are completely covered by repetition of the phrase: Have fun, keep going... keep creating.

The style of the prose varies. In the description of a party sentences flow together with minimal punctuation and adjectives. At other times McGregor presents thoughtful paragraphs replete with exquisite and uncommon detail of the physical environment.

And the chemicals? They are all here in great quantity: crystal, speed, pot, ecstasy, heroin. One of the successes of the novel is that they are presented (compatively) without glamour. There are no fatal overdoses, but there are bad experiences. traffic gets evicted by her housemates for drug dealing. There is also plenty of bisexuality, fisting and anal sex, but this is portrayed with relative indifference. 

Most of these scenes are closer to being touching than shocking.The book lends wonderfully to re-reading, and so the colours are not lost. Consider Chemical Palace for a spot on your coffee table.

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