Andrew McGahan - Praise
Gordon Buchanan is a university drop-out, he is lazy, he smokes and drinks too much, and he has recently lost his job. He has all but quit life, not even bothering to count down the years until his cigarette-worsened asthma carries him to an early death. Praise, the Miles Franklin Literary Award winning novel by Australian author Andrew McGahan, is Gordon's novel, a miserably chronicle of nine months during which a lot happens, but nothing really changes. Life in Brisbane during the 1980s was an unfortunate period where the young were swallowed up by the dreary small-town nature of the city, and the suffocating power of the corrupt State Premier. There seemed to be no options for anyone because there really weren't – you could either leave for Melbourne or Sydney, or you could rot on the dole. Gordon, along with almost everyone he knows, has chosen to rot.
McGahan's – Gordon's – voice is bleak and spare, the narration of a man concerned with getting the job of telling his story over as soon as possible. Odd, then, that the novel extends to nearly three hundred pages. Early on Gordon, a mostly asexual, self-absorbed, generally unpleasant and unclean fellow, meets Cynthia, a sex-obsessed recovering drug addict who views intercourse as a necessity of life. They fall into an unhealthy relationship, with Gordon's conflicts over his distinct lack of empathy, emotion, understanding (whether himself or others), interest (he has none, and wants none) and confidence tearing the couple apart as much as it brings them together. Cynthia isn't a personality so much as a vagina, the opposite of the sexually uninterested Gordon. Cynthia also has terrible eczema and experiences an STD, an abortion, and an attack of cancer while she is with him.
As bad as they are for each other, they cannot help their violent couplings.
“I climbed on top of her. My head was between her legs, my prick over her face. I nudged her mouth with it. She held her lips closed. I pushed harder. She opened up. I began fucking her mouth. I drove it in. She choked and gagged. I moved my fingers into her cunt. I jammed them deep. She kicked, struggled. I was crushing her, I was lying flat on her body. My prick as in her throat. Her teeth grated into it. I heard animal sounds. I fucked on. My fingers plunged in and out of her cunt. She was wet. She was slop. She was mud.
Gordon has virtually no inner life. There's nothing there, he's a hollow man without thought or empathy or understanding. McGahan's thesis, of course, is that Gordon's predicament is a casualty of the bleak and banal existence of life on the dole in a place as (then) backwater as Brisbane, Australia. This holds true only so far as the character allows it. McGahan doesn't have Gordon speak as the voice of a generation or any such nonsense – Gordon's plight is his alone, his misery is his alone, though he shares it with his friends. Instead, McGahan shows a certain subset of young adults in Brisbane during the 80s, the group of people for whom life would never be anything but the next beer. This is the life Gordon leaves, and it is bleak: “We sat there until closing time. The table was covered in empty glasses. We decided to walk home and leave the car. The police drink-driving teams often had the bridge covered on Saturday nights. We left the bar and climbed up to the bridge. The river was there, moving slow.”
This is nasty business, lacking in artistry and dignity. Niceness is not a required attribute for a novel to be successful, but the relentless misery of Gordon's daily existence is, at times, too much. And the galling apathy of it all doesn't help. Every smile in this novel stems from a pathetic moment, every laugh is one of derision or contempt. Nobody is happy and there is no suggestion that happiness will ever be available.
There are parties and there are drugs. There are brief scenes with happy families, and there are miserable vignettes where a tired old man masturbates while watching Gordon shower, or Cynthia and Gordon have sex in a toilet, the smell of faeces overpowering everything. An old flame, Rachel, enters the story to complicate matters, turning the zombie-like Gordon into a fluttering love-struck teenager. Perhaps because Gordon is so deadened inside he is unable to provide his description of the characters with any real feeling, and as such, they all come across as fairly samey. There are two couples who spend time with Gordon and Cynthia, yet when one of them separates, it is difficult to remember which, or why, and impossible to care.
And yet for all the nastiness, and drudgery, and misery, McGahan's novel, though it is unpleasant to read, moves forward with confidence and skill. McGahan's understands plot and pacing; Praise travels smoothly from one place to another. Cynthia, though she really is noting more than twentyfour-seven sex, provides much of the vitality of the novel. When she leaves, around two hundred pages in, her replacement is dull and Gordon's sudden outpouring of emotion rings false. There is a sense that McGahan knows this, for Cynthia remains present during phone calls, her potent voice crippling and hating Gordon in the manner he exactly desires.
Gordon's narrative voice is strong in its block-like utility, its graceless chunks of plot progression. The descent into brutality and misery is as apathetically described as opening a beer or smoking a joint, which gives the narration a certain charm. Praise is astonishingly unintellectual and unaesthetic, particularly considering that Gordon professes (casually and without any real interest) to be a writer. McGahan tells a story well, but he hasn't given us a good story, here.