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Posted on 15 Jan 2015 in Fiction | 2 comments

JULIAN DAVIES Crow Mellow. Reviewed by Michael Richardson

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crowmellowThis deliberately strange and inventive homage to Aldous Huxley is a novel of ideas that will draw each reader in differently.

Crow Mellow makes no secret of its strangeness. The book is narrower in size than normal, the author’s name in small type, just two sentences of blurb on the back cover: ‘This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page.’ Flipping through, a riot of energetic drawings frames neatly arranged text. There are no page numbers. This strangeness is deliberate and also essential: Julian Davies’s new book, illustrated by Phil Day, wants not simply to look different but to be read differently too.

Crow Mellow is a deliberate reinvention of Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, his first novel from 1921. As Davies explains in his short introduction, rereading Huxley’s book after several decades inspired its rewriting ‘more in the manner of a variation on a painting than taking it as a loose literary starting point’. Like Huxley’s novel, Crow Mellow is set on a rural estate occupied by a small but strange cast of characters who spend much of the book’s 30 short chapters discoursing on social, artistic and economic matters. Also like Huxley, Davies is intent on satirising those themes in his own contemporary milieu. Thus, Huxley’s English country estate becomes an Australian bush retreat; its minor nobleman becomes a financial tycoon; the economic upheaval following WWI becomes the hyper-capitalism of global finance.

Davies’s book is similarly a novel of ideas rather than narrative. This is not to say the novel lacks a plot: the book centres on the aspiring but rather callow writer Phil Day (sharing a name with the illustrator) who pursues in increasingly pathetic fashion the beautiful Anna, daughter of wealthy financier Mitchell Rimbush and his artist-collecting wife Elena. Competing with Phil for Anna’s affections is Paul Piranelli, ‘an artist who, after years of what [Elena] referred to as conceptual brilliance, had begun to draw and paint’. Earnestly intellectual, young Melissa Bricegriddle spends the book conducting her own sexual experiments. Most amusing is Dick Scrogum, Mitchell’s oldest friend and the chief postulator and theoriser of the group, nicknamed Scrotum by Phil and Paul because he ‘hung around and injected himself into any and every conversation he conceivably could’. Save for a minor figure or two who materialise briefly, the final member of the cast is the deaf Lucy Fleischmann. Like the lively drawings on each page, she skirts the margins of the text but sees its players far more clearly than they do themselves – indeed, as the title page suggests, those very drawings are recreations from her sketchbook.

What characters say and think matters more than what they do. In one of many exchanges, Phil and Scrogum discuss the uncertain meaning of the word ‘plot’. Phil confesses that for years he had simply transposed its meaning from the plans of evildoers to analysis of fiction:

‘In any case, I was convinced that the plot in a book was a devious, even evil, trick its author devised to mislead the reader. The weird thing is, I actually got as far as English at uni before I fully realised how distorted my understanding was.’

‘Distorted? My dear fellow, you have in fact stumbled across one of the chief ironies of existence; that is, that life has no plot and yet as authors and readers we’re obsessed by these fantasies, inventions and falsifications.’

As Scrogum goes on to explain, plot provides sweet relief from petty irritations and frustrations; it suggests that uncertainties will eventually resolve themselves. Crow Mellow makes clear that such hopes are illusory – as satire, its intention is rather to demystify comforting mythologies. Thus its own plot is deliberately hackneyed – hero-chasing-girl is another piece of satire. Far more intriguing are the conversations had along the way, ranging in subject matter from high finance to family history, literature to sex, painting to penises.

The estate at Crow Creek provides an apt venue for wonderful pretensions. Its excesses ‘were so great and its materials and craftsmanship so exceptional, there was a kind of glorious lunacy about the whole enterprise.’ Like the English countryside folly of Crome in Huxley’s novel, the estate is nearly a character in its own right. Its strange towers, restored mill and luxurious rooms heighten the absurdity of the talk that takes place – as if such a removed setting might inspire the knowledge of the world and its workings, great and small, that so occupies Mitchell’s guests. With the discursive style of Davies’s (and Huxley’s) satire, quoting at length is worthwhile. Here is what follows Paul’s description of Australia’s moneyed class as ‘economically rapacious and tediously conformist’:

‘There, if ever there was one, speaks an artist in resentful longing for a bunch of well-heeled patrons,’ said Scrotum.

‘He has me, ungrateful little bugger,’ Elena chided, although she didn’t seem at all offended.

‘And what more could he possibly want?’ Scrotum was beaming. ‘And you underestimate the class as a whole, Paul. Why, Ted Hutchins, the cardboard packaging millionaire, has assembled a magnificent and almost complete collection of those little use-by-date clips that seal bread loaf plastic bags. He’s built a fine museum to house them. And there’s Collin Quest, the transport tycoon whose fifty-four million dollar Gallery of Chance is such a magnificent museum for our chief national cultural pursuit, gambling. No, I won’t have it said that we aren’t a nation of wonderfully innovative plutocrats. Some day, Phil, you must write their biographies – Aussie Originals, you should call it. What a subject. Non-fiction is your true metier. I’m sure you’d chip in to fund the project, wouldn’t you, Mitchell?’

‘My fat arse I would.’

‘Exactly. You see, Phil, what are you waiting for? You’re guaranteed failure.’

Such inventive exchanges are where Davies’s writing is at its most lively and engaging. Throughout, Scrogum skewers every side like this while maintaining a sustained sardonic tone. It is never clear what, if anything, he believes to be true other than the necessity of speaking.

The illustrator Phil Day’s drawings are as nearly as crucial as the words on the page. They emphasise the distorted, distended quality of the characters and their thoughts. Highlighting the penises, anuses, food, books, furniture, legs, and breasts that pepper the text, their hasty lines of heavy pencil provide a visceral counterpoint to the tightly written prose. In style, they are somewhat reminiscent of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations in Hunter S Thompson’s books, although much less violently deranged. Drawn collaboratively as Davies wrote the text, they are the most pronounced deviation from Huxley’s original. While Davies keeps the setting, events and topics of each chapter quite close to those of Huxley’s, Day’s drawings give the book a vitality that might otherwise be lacking – they free it from its predecessor to stand more on its own terms.

This problem of the book relating so closely to Crome Yellow is an interesting one. One of the pleasures of the text was to have read it immediately after Huxley’s novel and to encounter the various references, subversions and diversions of its predecessors. But it is nonetheless a self-contained entity, and one very much engaged with its contemporary Australian moment. While the triumphs and failings of titans of finance is a somewhat stale story, this is only one of the book’s running themes. Crow Mellow is the kind of book that will draw each reader in differently. Its genius is that whatever spark of an idea or pretentious claim most excites or amuses, no matter how fleeting it might seem, it does not occur in isolation. The book works as a novel of ideas not because each idea is succinctly explored, but rather because each forms part of a larger conversation: rambling, discontinuous and fractured, but satirising the pretensions and preoccupations of a certain social class whose importance to the wider fabric of society is as distant and surreal as the estate of Crow Creek itself.

Julian Davies Crow Mellow Finlay Lloyd 2014 PB 384pp $28.00

Michael Richardson is an academic and writer. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He can be found on the web at www.marichardson.net and on Twitter @richardson_m_a.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or from the publisher here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for your review Michael. I have read another review of this book but yours has really highlighted for me the “sense” of the book, especially helpful are the quotes from Davies’s writing. Looking forward to reading it.
    I have now added it to my enormous pile of books to read at GR!

    • Thanks, Debbie. Glad the review helped!