Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Review: Magpie by Peter Goldsworthy & Brian Matthews

Odd, irreverent and filled with black humour, Magpie is very much of product of the time and place where it was written and published. Set in Adelaide, this one is Literary fiction, pitched at a fairly limited market. To give it a bit of a broad description, it gets away with a lot of shit that authors could get away with back in the days before the internet, goodreads and book blogs like this one became a thing. (Actually, I can almost hear the authors snort with disdain at my use of the phrase 'a thing.' Or that a graduate of Christies Beach High School would actually dare to read--and discuss--Literary fiction in any kind of public forum. I'm pretty sure that all of my opinions forthwith are now redundant.) Anyway, to give this book a bit of context it is set in 1992, an era when the academic sphere in Australia was changing quite a bit. Universities were merging, becoming less exclusive and spread across a number of campuses. Consequently, many academics found themselves shafted into newer and less prestigious teaching positions. In roughly the same era, there were a number of works of Literary fiction released in Australia which used magical realism to parody the Australian way of life, the most memorable and notable of which is Holden's Performance by Murray Bail.  The authors themselves belong very much in the sphere of old school academia, Brian Matthews is a Doctor of Philosophy, while Peter Goldsworthy studied Medicine at the University of Adelaide, and divides his time equally between general practice and writing. A number of visitors to this blog may already be familiar with another of Goldsworthy's novels, Maestro, which often finds its way on to high school reading lists. 

Magpie is certainly an oddity. It tells of Bennett, a dissatisfied, middle-aged academic who finds himself caught in an nonsensical, ever changing world that works only because this novel is a parody. His story starts easily enough--he's a man facing a big career transfer in a world that seems a bit more darker and a bit more comical than the one we live in. Between chapters, however, letters exchanged back and forth between an author, publisher (and eventually typesetters and lawyers,) make it clear that there is a bit more going on. Bennett's chapters are a story within a story and the authors appear to have great fun fleshing this out as the novel progresses, making each twist and turn sillier and more nonsensical than the last. At one point Bennett gets screwed--in more ways that one--in the back of a taxi, later he finds himself auditioning at the Malley and Daughters Literary Character Agency. (Yes, Malley, I think we can all see what the authors did there.) The novel is clever, unnerving and very deliberately lacks any kind of mass market appeal, which probably made it groundbreaking back in its day. Twenty five years later however, the novel is well ... it's an oddity. Or let me put it this way. I found it in pristine condition at a secondhand book shop and I paid twenty cents for it.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2017