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Posted on 1 May 2018 in Fiction |

ROGER AVERILL Relatively Famous. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir

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A playful real-but-fake fictional world is conjured in Relatively Famous

The title of Roger Averill’s new novel establishes the theme and slightly arch tone that underlie this intriguing metafictional fiction.

Narrator Michael Madigan is the son of famous Australian author Gilbert Madigan, who abandoned Mick and his mother when the boy was only four. Although related to someone acclaimed worldwide, Mick sees himself as merely ‘diligent and punctual’. He calls himself ‘mediocre’ as a punk musician, and although he admits showing ‘more talent’ as an artist, nevertheless labels himself ‘limited … derivative’ and suspects his famous name is what lands him a gallery show.

Mick’s struggles with his father’s fame and his own identity intensify when academic author Sinclair Hughes embarks on a biography of the ageing writer. Gil, years earlier, had dismissed the ‘biografiends and other leeches’ jostling to turn the ‘gold’ of his artistic life into ‘base metal’, and loyally Mick and his mother refuse to cooperate.

Mick takes an instant dislike to biographer Hughes: ‘… he had … a clarity born not of reflection but a lack of it.’ However, Mick’s ex-wife Natalie contributes letters from her long correspondence with Gil. The subsequent biography spurs Mick to write his own version, in order ‘to give a sense of his life by making sense of my own’.

The novel we read opens with a prologue taken from Hughes’s ‘published’ biography Inside the Lion’s Den: The literary life of Gilbert Madigan. The faux extract refers to Gil’s departure from Mick and his mother, briskly dismissing the relationship as the famous man’s ‘first, ill-matched marriage’. The extract employs the authenticating signals of academic quotation: scholarly language and display of erudition, different typeface, carefully formatted citation, even a page reference.

Setting up the pattern of alternate viewpoints, Chapter One presents Mick’s private and personal perspective. It’s less formal, and events are messier: ‘Ever since I can remember, people have asked me if I am going to be a writer like my father.’ Whereas the official biography lauds Gil’s creativity and achievement, Mick’s story reveals a damaged son’s humiliations, failures, and his painful, conflicted need for approval.

The contrasting perspectives raise the central questions of Relatively Famous. Who has the right to tell Gil’s story? Is one version more accurate than the other? What is ‘authentic’?

As a character, Mick is defined by inwardness. He searches for words during a conversation that leads to his marriage split. His wife Nat begs:

‘I need a reaction, Mick. I need something – action, reaction. Something. Something more than nothing.’

At another point, his mother comments that her grandchildren – Mick and Nat’s children – are good kids:

I didn’t respond. I thought it was probably true, but wished I knew what part exactly I had played in them turning out okay. I wondered if I’d been a good kid myself, and if so, whether … it was due to a desperate desire to please born of Gil’s empty promises.

Mick’s isolation leads to self-pity that occasionally stretches the reader’s empathy. And given his low opinion of biographer Sinclair Hughes, as well as their different perspectives, it’s surprising that Mick echoes the tone – if not the vocabulary – of dismissive superiority that flavours Hughes’s biographical extracts. His pronouncements may be intended to be humorous but sometimes feel awkward. ‘My faith in coffee is old and home-brewed,’ Mick says, adding that young people clutch ‘takeaway cups to their breasts, raising them to their lips much as medieval monks once grasped and kissed their crosses.’ The self-confessed mediocre artist’s opinion that ‘contemporary art was trapped in the paradox of predictable shock, something that evinced little more than a wry, ironic smile’ loses its validity as analysis and instead suggests he is making excuses for his lack of success.

The breakdown of the marriage leads to an unlikely turn of events: Nat begins a relationship with biographer Hughes. Averill makes this believable and emotionally resonant. Another strength of the writing is Averill’s control of the storyline across decades, constructing the trajectory of a young and talented Australian author:

With the publication of The Falling Part [in 1957], my father’s star rose as high as the small Australian literary firmament allowed … The book won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal and was widely rumoured to have been runner-up for the inaugural Miles Franklin Award.

Like many authors of that time, Gil Madigan flees overseas, to Great Britain and the United States. Averill tosses barbs at the ‘Lilliputian proportions’ of Australia’s literary scene, but he allows Gilbert’s biographer to acknowledge its dynamics:

… the Australian literary circle of 1957 had a far more complex geometry than that tired metaphor of unity suggests, one typified by sharp ideological lines and discrete hemispheres, occupied by realists in one half and mytho-poetic types in the other; all of it crosshatched by resentments, petty slights and incestuous liaisons.

A playful real-but-fake fictional world is conjured with details of actual places and events, as well as ‘citations’ from real-life critics. Thus, in 1957, Nettie Palmer gives Gil’s first book a positive review in the Sydney Bulletin. When Gil publishes an acclaimed novel in the United States at the time of the Vietnam War, Averill quotes imaginary responses from Norman Mailer, who seems to suggest it might even be the Great American Novel. The same novel provokes Australian Frank Hardy to describe it as ‘a grovelling piece of bourgeois, pro-US propaganda’, while Douglas Stewart applauds ‘the book’s important theme of freedom and acknowledge[s] Australia’s grave debt to the United States’. And after Gil’s death, Philip Adams interviews Madigan’s biographer, obviously on Late Night Live.

Additional interplay between fiction and ‘real life’ can be seen in Averill’s own writing journey. He explains in a Writers Victoria online interview that his PhD explored ‘the sociological importance of life writing to our understanding of the intersection between the self and society’. Himself a ‘biografiend’, he published a biography of Werner Pelz, his university lecturer and friend. This prompts a question about the extent to which his first-hand experience of maintaining critical distance and simultaneously seeking approval – balancing insight while living up to a role model – fed into Relatively Famous.

Roger Averill Relatively Famous Transit Lounge 2018 PB 297pp $29.99

Jeannette Delamoir is a Queenslander and former academic who is passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.

You can buy Relatively Famous from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

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