Ian Shadwell, ‘Slush-Pile’ in The Newtown Review of Books

Linda Funnell reviews 'Slush-Pile' in The Newtown Review of Books, August 7, 2014:


‘I am not a normal person. I am a writer,’ declares Michael Ardenne, the antihero of Ian Shadwell’s takedown of literary narcissism. Michael is a prodigy, having won the Booker Prize for his first novel before he turned 30. The years since, however, have not been fruitful: ‘[a]fter a decade and a half of writer’s block, he was as dry as an old dog turd.’

Financially dependent on his wife Tanya (who has put her own literary ambitions aside in order to provide for them both), Michael passes the time surfing the internet, watching porn, inventing pseudonyms under which to contribute to online discussions about his work, and revelling in past glories (there is a toe-curling scene at the local RSL when his name is the answer to one of the trivia night questions).

Things come to a head for Michael when, having failed to curb his taste for fine wines and whisky, there is no money left to pay the phone bill. In the resulting confrontation, Tanya makes it clear to him that he needs to get a job or they will lose the house. Afterwards Michael reflects:

After all, what did it mean to be a writer? Other writers had struggled with these issues, with character flaws, with money problems. Bukowski! There was one. Though his writing was adolescent and not a patch on Michael’s. Why, in a sense, if anything, this incident proved he was a writer. That he was the type of person who could not cope with the demands of everyday reality simply because his mind was so full of inspiration … He sank onto the couch, too weak to support his body. His head was so heavy; full, no doubt, of inspiration, that he could no longer stand.

There’s a lot not to like about Michael Ardenne, from his narcissism to his habit of perving on the teenage schoolgirl next door and much in between. But he is also intensely vulnerable. It was his vulnerability that originally attracted the capable Tanya, and it’s the very fragility of his self-delusion that keeps the story moving. How far can he go before being forced into some kind of self-realisation?

The answer is: quite a long way. In response to his requests for money, his publisher sends him a box of unsolicited manuscripts (‘the slush pile’ as it is pejoratively known) to assess. One of these is the gripping and bloody story of a serial killer. In desperation to produce a new work, Michael reworks it as his own, even reproducing entire scenes from the original…

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