Philip Salom, ‘Waiting’ launch by Marion May Campbell

Launch speech for Philip Salom's Waiting. Launcher: Marion May Campbell

Waiting was launched on 12 March 2016, at The Lithuanian Club, Errol St, North Melbourne.

The novel always fails, it seems. Even with good novels you’ve got to be prepared for the ragged and the baggy; many a canonised novel contains haranguing disquisitions, polemical tirades, descriptions that sit there as backdrops for readers to activate; it might struggle to be borne out of the genealogical mire, out of slow, waterlogged backstory, to find its breath, its first plangent cry, its pace; and for insights ostensibly accessed through character, many a good novel trots out observations that are way beyond its characters’ voices, unlikely for their image-and-knowledge-repertoires. I think readers forgive a novelist of wide range and imaginative insight for some of those dangling threads that carry important information, even if they fail to find integration at a higher level, in terms of narrative and structural economy, and thematic warp and weft.

But a great novel uses everything it sets into play, even the casual reality effect: it has, for starters, a structure generated by its principle, a potential engine hinted at, but only realised retroactively in its title: for instance waiting, here both as process of reading and of the unfolding of the presented world in the work.

A great work of art, according to the habitually paradoxical Jean Genet, inscribes in itself the principle of its own destruction – well, I might attenuate that: it encodes at every level the principle of its own productive constraints, of its own artistic challenge. Here this is intimately bound up with the medium of narrative itself: it’s inscribed in the title Waiting, which alerts us to a passive attentiveness. Waiting might be just a sort of hanging out of time; or perhaps an acquiescence to the elongating moment that is one’s life, also a yielding, in every new moment, to abuse the chance of one’s life. Waiting for something better to come along can mean giving into the dereliction of procrastination and briefly distracting anaesthetic pleasures. But waiting is also the Scheherazade principle, whereby narratives are all framed by Death, and waiting is a rehearsal for its approach, dressed up, dragged back in, in drab costume or glitzy drag, in all kinds of narrative endings. Waiting invites us here, into this rooming house as a kind of anti-chamber for what life might still bring to the stranded, the washed up and the down and out, the cornered and the self-cornering – those for whom the hiatus has been prolonged with little hope for change. It is the ineluctable approach of a messenger from the wings, always Death in whatever guise, whatever the desperate speed or the canny slowness with which one plays the waiting game. It is the principle of storytelling, the delicious extension of waiting, and the endless rehearsal of fantasised resolutions.

A great novel extends the possibilities of narrative for writers to come; it deals inventively with its medium: time itself: playing out a dynamic amongst all those aspects of time, including – the represented historic or contemporary time; the temporal unfolding of story through the spatial or scenic; the immensity of mythic and cultural time through intertextual resonance, and the time of reading as unfolding performance

To gather the infinite manifold of this experience-in-time into a limited number of pages, all storytellers resort to some spatial devices as constraints: for Boccaccio it’s the villa as retreat from the plague; for Balzac, it’s the Parisian pension; for Joan London the polio ward; for Gail Jones, the vacant Berlin flat, and for Philip Salom, it’s the North Melbourne rooming house, with its extraordinary lead characters, Big and Little, and the constellation of players around them, all wounded in distinct, singular ways. Part of his brilliance is to work this spatial device as a machine to tie the casual-historic to the mythic-monumental, and this book is utterly contemporary, in its soulful yet highly comic critique of current Australian ‘effluence’, to borrow the Turner and Riley malapropism. As both naturalistic and mythic space, the rooming house gives the general dramatic and unforgettable singularity; it opens out the possibility of redemption from time spent on predatory, self-destructive or combative appetites; the rooming house becomes a transformative matrix, where even bit players can take on mythic status: Bible-bashing, ex-kiddie-fiddler Tom taps away maddeningly on his Braille typewriter, hoping to let the blind see the light through extracts from Old Testament scenarios of gratuitous brutality and absurdity; the hard, clear-eyed ex-crim, the Sheriff, as self-appointed bouncer of the rooming house keeps the drug dealers at bay, and is both Cerberus and Charon, watcher of the house and conveyer of souls; there is Juliet, who comes and goes in the rooming house, who does sex work to fund her habit, and is emblematic in her beauty of some better life for the ruined men about, even as she plasters make-up over her battered eye, bludgeoned by the latest man in her life. Yet she is ‘of the spirits’: like Madame Sosostris in The Wasteland; through her bruised eye she offers a seer’s advice to Little about the inheritance she is awaiting.

And – already hailed by readers and reviewers like Peter Peirce1 as unforgettable, in this tragi-comic traffic of dislocated bodies and wounded psyches through the rooming house, there is Big – with his manboobs and delicately held yellow handbag and print dresses and green flats and huge paunch, his hairy Pop-Eye forearms, his friar’s tonsure, [2] a kind of Tereisias figure, looking both both ways, man and woman – although it’s more a case of the man in a shift, Phil’s narrator jokes, rather than a shift in the man; but he’s still a shifty hyphen between eras and sexes, exshort-order shearer’s cook, Vietnam Nasho Vet, an encyclopaedic autodidact, who, with his great, but not unfailing, love of Little, is seen with a largesse of comic compassion, unlike Sartre’s caustic take on the autodidact in Nausea.

These, the waiting disinherited, are capable of flares of extraordinary insight, even where intelligence is dulled by addiction or brutal, lobotomising intervention, like Dazza-the-dazed, or they’re whackily original in philosophising, like Big; or strangely stoical, timorous but immensely brave like Agnes, known here as Little, subject to subtle epiphanies, and who, like Janet Frame’s young self, has run from the terrors of primary school teaching and middleclass judgement. Each is illuminated and exquisitely detailed through the crossing of their trajectories as they come and go in this rooming house. 

‘As inseparable as they are in syntax: Big & Little’. What the super-eloquent and middleclass, like Jasmin, academic and semiotician, will see here, in a couple like this, is a revelation of human connection, which is always missing from her fleetfooted traversal of elegant Parkville or her silver-tongued navigations of de Certeau, Bachelard, and Barthes. Because the rooming house is a slowness-machine. It catches time and is a revelator, to pinch the words of Gillian Welch.

As well as being negotiator of Agnes’s right to inheritance, Angus is self-styled designer of fireproof houses and of landscapes whose hydraulic systems intimate ‘deep romantic chasms’. Yet his susceptibility to the flare-up of deep psychic wounds will see him drawn all the more intensely into Jasmin’s affective field. If the erotic attraction between them has already been staged through the reader’s senses, the academic woman and earth-moving man become emotionally tenderised through encounters in the rooming house with the damaged lives held there – or are those simply more manifestly damaged than their own? They will have to ask.

The inner urban rooming house stages also the return of the repressed: if it’s not a conceit of the blatant order of the towering inferno, it’s both proximate to city towers and, as for infernal, it’s still haunted by the ever-present menace that even inner-urban Australians now feel, of the spectre of bushfires and the games of blame that spark up viciously long afterwards in their scorched and traumatised wake. For Angus, the somewhat hubristic Earthman, this rooming house secretes in its nether regions the arsonist-nemesis of his past, whose abject surfacing will open the possibility of his redemption – which is not spelled out, but is there – if he confronts it together, with his own implication in the disaster. 

So, along the temporal axis of this work, anecdote becomes resonant with myth; love is quickened by death, and, with middle-age encroaching, sexual love takes on a searing, sensual urgency, as with Angus and Jasmin, or for the only externally mismatched Big and Little, younger and older, taller and shorter, skinnier and fatter, an exquisitely tender vulnerability and complementarity.

The whole human comedy is played out by the celebration of singularities. The antecedents here are great comic writers of what Bakhtin would call dialogic imagination: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Joyce. This great generous-hearted and compassionate novel is likewise a series of experiments in other people’s thinking: as a constellation of embodied thought-and-feeling-universes performed through singular voices, vocabularies, syntaxes, and image-repertoires. A comic comingling of idiolects — such is the traffic enabled by the rooming house, celebrating the great range of human sensibility and affectivity through the voice. There is never a bland generalising narrator’s voice: all is coloured through the focalising character’s voiced consciousness. ‘Turn em into organ donors’: Phil performs the laconic wit of the thuggish Sheriff with this beautiful compression: combining the mockery of goody-two-shoes middleclass, oh so charitable even unto death, with of course, a neat death-dealing missile. 

Or listen to this, when a minor player, who rarely speaks, comes up in the ad breaks:

My IQ is really low, that’s what they told me at the centre and they’re probably right. But I’m OK with cars.

[...] Mate, the Sheriff looked at him, it has never occurred to me, never once gave it a thought. I reckon you’re smart enough mate, I mean it.

Yeah, came a chorus from the others. Fucken oath. [32-33].

Or here is the physical Earthman:

‘I’ve read if it’s any good a poem is universal, yeah? But I want to shrink it down to a clutch of stones and a lake.

My God, Angus.’

So says our academic Jasmin, registering surprise in her condescending drawl, that such gems might come from an untutored man.

More delightful semiotics come through the image-repertoire of Big who interrogates his own taste, like a Sartre or Merleau-Ponty for ‘pies and pasties as secret spaces; like intimacy; like purse’.

Told off for shouting in the IGA: Big broadcasts with ‘disbelieving’ pedantry of the autodidact:
I did not shout! I have projection. I have volume. It was claimed that the great Caruso could close his mouth over a full-sized egg.

Against this nuanced comic-melancholic performance of Big, there is an extraordinary scene where Little saves a virtually naked little autistic boy who has run onto the road: and not wanting to give the boy back; she rehearses in her mind Big’s speeches about sperm, miscegenation, lost children as a theme... But she cannot speak.

A world of grief is delivered through the laconic notation of sensation, of this great mounting grief, for which words would be a mockery, as she is wracked with speechless sobs: and we have just — The smell of the child... and the rain... 

The comic genius of this narrative imagination has all the characters in this complex unstable collective, come together in a fragile but effective stand of resistance: a media event against developer-slumlords, who would maximise profits by taking away their living room. The way this tactic works, which I won’t spell out, is to offer both a momentary triumph and deliver a sardonic comic reminder that nothing really changes in this world, where greed will do us all in: predators are there, even in the public and left wing media, turning the disinherited into stories and writing them out of them. Society at large does not change while greed is its principle and death ineluctably approaches: the Sheriff knows it’ll come fuck it; but, by becoming Littleand-Big’s driver (checking out affordable dumps for if and when she inherits) the Sheriff also shows that he is, in some way, a guardian of dreams, yes and a conveyor of souls like Charon. That love is so much more that a solitude à deux is an insight he drives us to, and that this utterly brilliant book delivers on every front.

It joins the great works that celebrate a diversity of mind, body, and voice through a wonderfully carnivalesque narrative that manages to transport emotionally as it compellingly entertains and radically critiques its host society – without a moment of didacticism.

This is not a good novel. And what a triumph that is. This writer of genius has created a great novel, which I hope you won’t wait to read. But then you might have to wait in a long line. © Marion May Campbell 2016

[1] See Peter Pierce The Weekend Australian