Monday, March 3, 2008

Hollow Days / A Book About Things That Didn't Happen

by Joel Spencer / Phil Doyle
merge media 1998

This is the most flawed, tragic, desperate, juvenile attempt at novel writing you will probably ever come across. It's also probably the best thing ever to come out of Canberra. Hollow Days and A Book About Things That Didn't Happen are both about 20 000 words each and stuck back to back so that they both have a cover. Both covers have vague black and white author pictures on them. It's basically even stevens, neither author pretends to be the primary attraction, although Joel's cover has been stuck with the ISBN. Maybe he drew the shortest straw or put in less money or something.

Both novels (novellas?) start off gallantly, falter around the midway mark and head down the toilet pretty soon after that. ABATTDH is particularly bad in the closing quarter, as if the author just wanted to forget it had ever happened. They both deal with youngish folks drinking a lot, being nihilistic and occasionally dying.

Hollow Days is the better effort: a melodrama set around a group of half a dozen doomed undergraduates killing time over the summer holidays. The story employs an unusual ubiquitous perspective, which flows into different characters and reveals their neuroses. For the most part this really works. The central character is Joe, who arrives in Canberra after a working holiday and starts drinking at a rate that would put Shane McGowan to shame. His friend Sarah is his only hope for salvation, but they're both too self-conscious to fall into a real relationship. Meanwhile Sarah accidentally sleeps with the bisexual Tony, and when Joe finds out he has a hissy fit and slaps her around. Unfortunately she hits her head on the bathroom tiles and dies instantly, leaving Joe running from the police to the freedom of the highway.

It all seems a little hard to believe, but then you remember that this is Canberra. Drinking and accidental murder are the only forms of entertainment. There are some quite compelling descriptions of drinking at bars, pushing oneself to the limits of alcoholism with a group of friends who can only fully bond after ten or so beers. The interior monologues of these people are really well done. It's all a bit like the Age of Reason, existentialism running wild. And when you think about it it's totally appropriate. If only this was a bit longer, it might have been a good novel.

A Book About Things That Didn't Happen is a vulgar, swaggering diatribe told from the vantage of that well-known hotel on the corner of Spencer Street. The nameless narrator has been taken here by a sympathetic woman, given a bit of loving and then abandoned with a week's rent in advance. He then sits watching the neon lights out the window, mulling over the story of his adult life. The more historial sections are printed in times new roman, while the present is allocated something more like arial. 

The best bits here are the authentic depictions of the Sydney underclass. From Penrith to Newtown, up to Armidale and then down to Adelaide, the narrator is never far from a pub or a DSS office. Some readers from these areas may recognize early nineties landmarks. You can't invent stuff like this. He beats up a girl, sponges off a few others, and inexplicably finds an affinity with Young Labor. His biggest problem however is his self-destructive drug use. He just can't say no to a bong and a shot of speed.

It's stream of consciousness mixed in with chunks of poetry, and it perfectly captures the voice of someone who is always shooting themselves in the foot for entertainment. He's an unlucky fellow, but then again, totally unapologetic for his lack of self-discipline. The tale gets predictable as it moves along, and the author is the first to get bored. Suddenly the narrator dies – of starvation, staring out the window at the neon lights. You can almost hear Doyle throwing the manuscript into the wastepaper basket.

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