PADDY O’REILLY The Wonders. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
Paddy O’Reilly’s third novel is a riotously clever, dark-hearted look at fame and the human body – and what happens when the two collide.
Leon is in his mid-20s, single and working in an office in Melbourne when he dies for the first time. He’s resuscitated by an embarrassed colleague, but after a second and third death in the following months, he is diagnosed with a heart condition. He receives a donor heart – which his body promptly rejects.
As Leon waits to die one final time, he’s approached by a pair of doctors looking for a test subject for a prototype artificial heart they’ve created. The procedure to replace his heart would be painful, risky and illegal, but with certain death as his only alternative, he agrees.
A year later, Leon is recovering from surgery, trying to forge a new life in a small country town. His new mechanical heart is a thing of extraordinary beauty, crafted from brass and titanium, held in place by ceramic struts and visible through a door built into his chest. However, when his secret is exposed, he’s hounded by journalists, besieged by offers of fame and money in exchange for his story.
Of his potential ‘suitors’, Rhona Burke literally stands out from the crowd, wearing cowboy boots, complete with spurs, and dripping with rhinestone jewellery. The daughter of an infamous American circus mogul, she wants to turn Leon into a superstar:
Rhona put her hand on Leon’s knee. Her heavy gold and silver rings rested in a row of knuckledusters on the fabric of his trousers. They were menacing but beautiful at the same time, and curiously warm.
‘Not a sideshow exhibit. Not a freak the way you’re thinking. Hon, you’re going to be like Elvis. You’re going to have women screaming and fainting over you. Not with fear or horror, but with passion. You’re going to be whoever you want. It’s not just people staring at you … More than a weird body, more than a trick, you’re going to give them a story, a life, a legend.’
While Leon’s doctors gave him the opportunity to live, what Rhona is offering is something even more appealing: the chance to live forever.
Unable to resist the pull of celebrity, Leon is whisked away to Overington, a palatial ranch tucked away in Vermont. It’s there he meets Kathryn, an Irish woman who sprouted thick, black wool all over her body following genetic therapy for Huntington’s disease, and Christos, a Greek performance artist who has had removable metal wings surgically implanted in his back. Under Rhona’s expert guidance, the three become the Wonders – an old-fashioned sideshow in an age of viral videos, social media and marketing teams.
It only takes a matter of months for the Wonders to become a global sensation. However, for Leon, Kathryn and Christos, fame isn’t without its complications. Fame can become an addiction. It can be lonely. And it can be dangerous, too.
O’Reilly makes a bold choice in centring The Wonders around Leon. While Kathryn’s sharp wit and Christos’s egotism set them at odds, Leon’s shy, quiet nature makes him endearingly unremarkable. For a man with his heart on constant display, it’s only in rare glimpses that we’re able to see Leon as he is – not that perpetually-confused Leon is really ever too sure as to who that might be.
Piece by piece, O’Reilly reveals the details of Leon’s life – the loss of his father, his disastrous love life – and eventually, we find out more about Susan and Howard, the two doctors responsible for Leon’s mechanical heart. O’Reilly describes Leon’s struggle for life following the procedure with a giddying tenderness, tinged with exhaustion and horror:
His body was made solid by the way they created him with their gaze. Exhausted and feverish and weak and sometimes wishing he was dead, he would be buoyed by an appraisal from Susan, an inspection by Howard. He did sometimes call himself Frankensteins’ monster – they were the Doctors Frankenstein who were stitching him together. But at the same time, they loved his body. They looked into him, reached into him, broke him and cut parts out of him, mended him as best they could. And all the time they kept their eyes on him and, at the end, he was the wondrous monster they had hoped to create. Then finally they could look again at each other.
There’s something beguiling about O’Reilly’s sense of restraint: The Wonders has many gaps, where details and events are glossed over, left to the reader’s imagination. The centrepieces of the story – Leon’s heart, Christos’s wings and Kathryn’s wool – are rarely described directly. And as for exactly what it is the Wonders do, that’s something we see only once:
The spotlight shone into [Leon’s] heart. He raised his arms in a wide embrace of the room and turned slowly. He moved around the space, between the furniture, followed by the spotlight. In the last few moments of the performance, when the singer’s voice had soared to the last line and he stood where he had entered, hands at his sides, head bowed, the man’s voice spoke under the music, directly into the minds of the audience. ‘What a piece of work is a man,’ the voice said, and without knowing they had been prompted, the spectators burst into applause. The whole performance took four and a half minutes.
It’s the novel’s wryest scene; the moment in which we realise that like so many celebrities, the Wonders are famous for doing nothing. With no skills, they exist solely to be looked at. Which is exactly what Rhona promised wouldn’t happen.
Like Leon’s mechanical heart, Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders is a finely-wrought, one-of-a-kind creation. It’s a novel with plenty to say about celebrity culture – the kind of culture that makes a man who walks around a room between pieces of furniture rich, while the doctors who created the medical miracle that keeps him alive remain obscure.
Touching and hilarious and horrifying in turn, The Wonders will gather you up and pull you along in its wake. It will keep your thoughts ticking like clockwork long after you’ve turned the final page.
Paddy O’Reilly The Wonders Affirm Press 2014 PB 304pp $29.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).
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