Scary Monsters, by Michelle de Kretser

So, firstly, the title is apparently a reference to a song by David Bowie?  Well, I Googled the lyrics… and am none the wiser. Secondly, the ‘novel’ is actually two novellas, tenuously linked.  One, ‘the past’ is set in 1980s Montpellier, France, and the other, ‘the future’ in a dystopian Melbourne.  It’s packaged in an upside-down format so that the reader can choose whether to read ‘cherry-side-up’ first: the coming-of-age story of Lili in France; or alternatively cherry-blossom-side-up: the satirical story of Lyle in the future.  I can’t see that this experiment in format makes much difference whichever one is read first, though perhaps Lili’s story might put you in a better mood… De Kretser explains the reasoning behind this upside-down format at the Guardian, i.e. her belief that migration turns lives upside-down, and she expresses her anxiety that publishing the book this way might be seen as gimmicky. Well, I’ll leave that to others to judge, but I will comment on her idea that migrants are viewed as gimmicky citizens whose worth is constantly questioned.  FWIW The ‘migrant as victim’ is an offshoot of identity politics that I reject.  It’s hard — of course migration is hard, change is always hard.  But unlike refugees, migrants choose it.  As a migrant myself I consider it a privilege to have been accepted as a migrant when there are millions of people around the world fruitlessly seeking a new homeland. Anyway… I started with the story of Lili.  She’s a twenty-something teacher from Australia, settling into Montpellier in the south of France.  Through Nick, who teaches at the same school, she develops an intense friendship with his girlfriend, a young English artist called Minna. Minna teaches Lili to be more assertive with the landlord who takes advantage of her inexperience to deny her heating in winter.  She also encourages her to dress with the individuality of mismatched clothes because ‘uglification’ is a way of mocking the French preoccupation with appearance.  They have a lot of fun together, but Lili privately thinks that she would be a better soulmate for Nick because she knows more about French literature and culture than Minna does.  However, because Lili is a person of colour, she thinks that she can never be quite ‘enough’. Lili wants to be a Bold. Intelligent. Woman. like Simone de Beauvoir, and she enjoys posing for Minna’s series of photos called ‘Daring Audrey’.  (This reminded me of Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful in which Mahood’s friend the photo-artist Pamela Lofts posed her in all kinds of ironic feminist critiques out in the Tanami Desert.) But despite having the courage to set off alone across the world for adventures in a different culture, Lili is more often hyper-alert for serial killers and she suspects that her creepy neighbour is plotting to attack her.  Reading this novella first without the brief allusion to it in Lyle’s story makes it end somewhat inconclusively in 1983 two years after the election of the socialist president François Mitterand. Lyle’s story is a rather heavy-handed satire.  It is set in a surreal dystopian Melbourne where Islam is illegal and there are heavy penalties for mentioning climate change. Sydney has been abandoned because of coastal erosion and bushfires, and the government monitors communications to identify troublesome migrants for repatriation.  Migrants Lyle and his wife Chanel keep their heads down in the outer suburbs while their adult children Sydney and Mel bully them.  Mel is studying architecture in Chicago, but her YouTube channel is about the ‘architecture of the face’ and her speech is loaded with farcical Millennial jargon.  When Lyle demurs about the cost of an American college, Mel tells him she’ll get a better job in Australia with an American degree and it’s really patriarchal of him to destroy her career before it’s even begun.  Mel demands three ‘statement’ dresses for forthcoming social events, and her grandmother Ivy is not to make them because that would be ‘beyond tragic’.  ‘Can’t you wear the same dress?’ asked Chanel.  ‘There’ll be different people in those three places.’ Mel burst into tears.  ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it!’ she gasped between sobs. ‘Gaslighted by my own mother. Oh my god.’ (p.75) What she wears is monitored by everyone in the world on Instagram… Millennials are such an easy target for mockery… Lyle works in Evaluation, a clearing house for Security.  But rather than let the reader deduce the implications for herself, De Kretser rams home the message about oblivious citizens collaborating with state oppression. If a case involves terrorism, we’re bypassed, and the investigating authority goes directly to our colleagues upstairs.  But as the number of proscribed acts and organisations increases, so too does the number of cases in which Security has a potential but not clear-cut interest.  These murkier cases arrive in our section every day, and we evaluate the risk they pose.  How many times have

Scary Monsters, by Michelle de Kretser

So, firstly, the title is apparently a reference to a song by David Bowie?  Well, I Googled the lyrics… and am none the wiser.

Secondly, the ‘novel’ is actually two novellas, tenuously linked.  One, ‘the past’ is set in 1980s Montpellier, France, and the other, ‘the future’ in a dystopian Melbourne.  It’s packaged in an upside-down format so that the reader can choose whether to read ‘cherry-side-up’ first: the coming-of-age story of Lili in France; or alternatively cherry-blossom-side-up: the satirical story of Lyle in the future.  I can’t see that this experiment in format makes much difference whichever one is read first, though perhaps Lili’s story might put you in a better mood…

De Kretser explains the reasoning behind this upside-down format at the Guardian, i.e. her belief that migration turns lives upside-down, and she expresses her anxiety that publishing the book this way might be seen as gimmicky. Well, I’ll leave that to others to judge, but I will comment on her idea that migrants are viewed as gimmicky citizens whose worth is constantly questioned.  FWIW The ‘migrant as victim’ is an offshoot of identity politics that I reject.  It’s hard — of course migration is hard, change is always hard.  But unlike refugees, migrants choose it.  As a migrant myself I consider it a privilege to have been accepted as a migrant when there are millions of people around the world fruitlessly seeking a new homeland.

Anyway…

I started with the story of Lili.  She’s a twenty-something teacher from Australia, settling into Montpellier in the south of France.  Through Nick, who teaches at the same school, she develops an intense friendship with his girlfriend, a young English artist called Minna. Minna teaches Lili to be more assertive with the landlord who takes advantage of her inexperience to deny her heating in winter.  She also encourages her to dress with the individuality of mismatched clothes because ‘uglification’ is a way of mocking the French preoccupation with appearance.  They have a lot of fun together, but Lili privately thinks that she would be a better soulmate for Nick because she knows more about French literature and culture than Minna does.  However, because Lili is a person of colour, she thinks that she can never be quite ‘enough’.

Lili wants to be a Bold. Intelligent. Woman. like Simone de Beauvoir, and she enjoys posing for Minna’s series of photos called ‘Daring Audrey’.  (This reminded me of Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful in which Mahood’s friend the photo-artist Pamela Lofts posed her in all kinds of ironic feminist critiques out in the Tanami Desert.) But despite having the courage to set off alone across the world for adventures in a different culture, Lili is more often hyper-alert for serial killers and she suspects that her creepy neighbour is plotting to attack her.  Reading this novella first without the brief allusion to it in Lyle’s story makes it end somewhat inconclusively in 1983 two years after the election of the socialist president François Mitterand.

Lyle’s story is a rather heavy-handed satire.  It is set in a surreal dystopian Melbourne where Islam is illegal and there are heavy penalties for mentioning climate change. Sydney has been abandoned because of coastal erosion and bushfires, and the government monitors communications to identify troublesome migrants for repatriation.  Migrants Lyle and his wife Chanel keep their heads down in the outer suburbs while their adult children Sydney and Mel bully them.  Mel is studying architecture in Chicago, but her YouTube channel is about the ‘architecture of the face’ and her speech is loaded with farcical Millennial jargon.  When Lyle demurs about the cost of an American college, Mel tells him she’ll get a better job in Australia with an American degree and it’s really patriarchal of him to destroy her career before it’s even begun.  Mel demands three ‘statement’ dresses for forthcoming social events, and her grandmother Ivy is not to make them because that would be ‘beyond tragic’. 

‘Can’t you wear the same dress?’ asked Chanel.  ‘There’ll be different people in those three places.’

Mel burst into tears.  ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it!’ she gasped between sobs. ‘Gaslighted by my own mother. Oh my god.’ (p.75)

What she wears is monitored by everyone in the world on Instagram…

Millennials are such an easy target for mockery…

Lyle works in Evaluation, a clearing house for Security.  But rather than let the reader deduce the implications for herself, De Kretser rams home the message about oblivious citizens collaborating with state oppression.

If a case involves terrorism, we’re bypassed, and the investigating authority goes directly to our colleagues upstairs.  But as the number of proscribed acts and organisations increases, so too does the number of cases in which Security has a potential but not clear-cut interest.  These murkier cases arrive in our section every day, and we evaluate the risk they pose.  How many times have I tried to explain this to Sydney?  In his opinion, working for the Department equals complicity with a police state.  He throws around terms like ‘coercive powers’ and ‘unlawful surveillance of private citizens’, and I repeat, ‘I’m only an administrator.’ Any reasonable person could see that I coerce no one.  A recommendation is no more coercive than a suggestion.  Security makes all the decisions that count.  Here in Evaluations, we evaluate.  That’s all. (p.38-9)

Sydney’s decision to live in an eco-commune called Shaking the Grass (an allusion to a poem by the Nazi sympathiser Ezra Pound) is therefore cause for alarm.

‘Is anyone in your community leafleting farmers about sustainable crops or tree-planting or animal rights?’ I asked.  ‘Anyone speaking out against the Proud Nazis?  Anyone advocating for Aboriginal rights or women’s refuges or a universal basic income?’ I went on like that, cataloguing activities that attract surveillance and could be banned at any time. (p.85)

BTW the epigraph at the beginning of both novellas is a quotation from Nietzsche, these days a darling of the alt-right (though some biographers say this is because he is misunderstood).

Many of the characters’ names are brands, e.g. Ikea, Porsche and Prada, and all the migrants change their names because they think it’s expected of them.  Ivy is the only one who keeps her name, and is the only one who seems grounded.  But whatever wisdom she has, is offset by Lyle’s patronising narration.

The monsters of the title are racism, misogyny and ageism (targeted at Boomers and older).  The preoccupation with real estate brings Lyle and Chanel to a choice dependant on their inheritance from Ivy, which brings the government’s fast-tracked euthanasia law into the equation.

(This kind of scare tactic in a euthanasia debate always annoys me.  When most people want reform so that they can exercise their right to die if they are in intolerable pain and palliative care has failed them, scaremongers pop up to warn about greedy children bumping off their parents, as if it’s not possible to build in safety provisions to prevent that.)

Some of the black humour in Lyle’s story was droll, but mostly it just made me feel disappointed.  IMO the heavy-handed satire verges on preaching, in a way not dissimilar to Richard Flanagan’s strange thriller, The Unknown Terrorist.  I always warn readers not to let that be their first Flanagan because it’s nothing like his usual style and was written because he wanted to reach beyond his usual readership with his political outrage about terrorism legislation. It was so heavy-handed that his usual readers didn’t know what to make of it. Scary Ghosts feels the same to me, Lyle’s story, that is. Satire with a sledgehammer, pouring scorn on complacent Australia.  Scary Monsters is not what I was expecting from a sophisticated and subtle novelist like De Kretser.

Other reviewers were more impressed:

PS The cherry (and its blossom), BTW, is (in Japan) a symbol of beauty and innocence, good fortune and new beginnings.  And because the cherry has such a brief season, it also functions as a kind of memento mori, reminding us to enjoy the brevity of our lives.  (See The Present Tree).

Author: Michelle de Kretser
Title: Scary Monsters
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781761065101, pbk., 320 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin