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I can feel the panic welling up inside me once more, a swelling wave of hysteria and dark despair. If there was only one person I could turn to, one person to confirm that I haven’t gone crazy, that world has…But there’s not. I have nothing, no one to hold on to, not one anchor to reality except for what lies inside my head.
What lies inside my head. All these memories. So many of them, with such detail. How can they all be lies?
About ten years ago I began rabbiting on to whomever would listen about something I called ‘modern fantasy’. In a nutshell, I was on the look-out for stories set in the present day that belonged to the fantasy genre, but featured neither magical swords, or elves. A modern update of the type of fiction Hope Mirlees and Lord Dunsany wrote before the Tolkien cottage-industry swept across the genre.
Jonathan Carroll is one such writer, as is John Crowley, who’s Little, Big to my mind ranks up there with classics such as Lud-in-the-Mist. The next name I mention when discussing this topic is Charles de Lint. Nowadays I imagine his work would be pitched to take advantage of the current ‘urban fantasy/dark romance’, sub-genres. Yet his writing manages to be both highly metaphorical, while also rooted in character building. His novels tend to feature large casts of twenty-somethings faced with dreamlike realities that they have to muddle their way through, in between paying rent and dealing with lousy relationships.
Trader seems at first to be have an atypically narrow cast of characters, as it begins with two men, Max Trader and Johnny Devlin, switching bodies. Max is a luthier, a craftsman who finds it easier to judge the quality of a piece of wood than the people he meets outside his workshop. Johnny is a user, who accepts no responsibility for his life and takes a selfish pleasure in manipulating people, such as his ex Tanya, into doing favours he has no interest in returning. Only now Johnny finds himself in Max’s body and it seems all his financial woes are over. He owns an apartment, a successful business and people even stop him in the street having read an interview with ‘Max’, in specialist magazines. His body’s original owner is having a much harder time of it. Max wakes to the sound of two women screaming at him to repay money he has stolen. That same day, still confused at being trapped in this new body, he is evicted and with no money is force to live rough on the streets.
Then he meets the man wearing his body, who casually dismisses him with the threat of calling the cops. After all who would believe this story?
Young Nia does. She lives in Max’s building and befriended him before the body swap happened. She can see that this new Max speaks, moves and acts completely differently. It almost seems as if someone else is inside Max, controlling him and then she begins to suspect that he is not the only one to have been changed.
The stage is set for a conflict between the two men that will cross from this world into another dimension, where their very souls are threatened by spirits and old gods.
As I said initially this seems to be a simple story a good man and a bad man trapped in each other’s lives. A magic realist The Prince and the Pauper perhaps. But de Lint brings a lot more to the table. When Max becomes homeless it is easy for people to assume when he talks about his life being stolen from him, he simply means the livelihood he squandered that led to his living rough in city parks. He meet a fortune teller names Bones, who off-handedly reveals he has invented his whole precognition gig – but that doesn’t mean it is not true. When he talks to Max about living in a second skin, he assumes the Indian means being down and out, having to reinvent yourself. Once again though, why can it not be both.
An assortment of bohemian artists and performers are introduced, the ideal people to give any credence to body swapping and ream worlds malarkey. Sometimes their interludes feel distracting though. I felt we never learned enough about Devlin, although he’s a louse seems to sum it up.
An entertaining fable, with sense of whimsy.
When and why did a man lose the faculty of change? Was it some point in the dying of the mind and body. A hardening of the nervous system. He practiced keeping his mind agile. Daily he made himself think thought he had not thought before. He forced himself to consider the worst. He practiced considering the opposite. He tried always to imagine at least two other possible ways of doing something. He fed his mind with maxims and precepts – the how-to-do-it manual of the mind.
It is funny how things come full circle. I spent a lot of time in video stores when I was a kid, gazing at the cover art and reading the blurbs of 18s movies that I was forbidden from watching. My knowledge of the Nightmare on Elm Street series was based entirely on the summaries on the back of the video cassette boxes, until I turned twenty-four. One video I remember gazing at was The Coca-Cola Kid. An Australian film starring Eric Roberts, it grabbed the eye courtesy of its title and use of the Coke logo. I was a kid, any hint of sugar sent me into a frenzy. I never saw the film and in fact had long forgotten about it.
Now I discover that this novel, which actually is set along the New South Wales southerly coast, where I am currently staying, was the basis for The Coca-Cola Kid and its author, Frank Moorhouse, wrote the script. The connection to my current home and the memories it recalls to me of my childhood, strike me as a curiously remote form of synchronicity. It is also appropriate, given that this is a book about memory and the changes in one man’s life.
The story itself concerns itself with George McDowell, a local businessman who likes to hold himself to strong principles, in business and in life. He even changes his name in middle age, adding the prefix of ‘T’, to make himself seem more regal. After a trip to America with his father he becomes fascinated with Rotary, its focus on morality married with commerce inspiring him to pursue the founding of a chapter on the South Coast.
Fancying himself a man of science, an individualist and a forward-thinker, McDowell believes in living according to a set number of moral precepts. Having focused so much on his career, bound up with his notions of being a man of good standing within the community, he has sacrificed friendship and the love of his family. His relationship with his wife is coolly formal and his daughter has embraced a bohemian lifestyle, indulging in drugs and sex. McDowell cannot comprehend how his daughter Terri has become so estranged from him, blaming the influence of ‘city life’, which he holds accountable for other problems such as overpopulation and trade unionism.
Then a young man from the Coke Company named Becker arrives in town to investigate McDowell’s operation. He also encounters Terri and is quickly enwrapped in their strained familial relationship. Becker represents a form of future that does not fit within McDowell’s orderly vision of a world ruled by rational men of business like himself. His daughter’s rebellion is similarly a reaction to his pedantic moral philosophy. Having spent his life attempting to realize the future, McDowell finds himself an old man, left behind by modernity.
Moorhouse tells his story in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out of McDowell’s life. We are privy to his thoughts and experiences throughout, with his inability to realize how little others think of him turning this into a curiously private tragedy. I also got a quiet thrill out of the mentions of Bulli and Wollongong. We visit several periods in McDowell’s career, from the inspirational 1920’s right up until after his death in the 1970’s, with Terri now accompanying a film crew looking to interview Australian men who lived during these periods.
This serves as a commentary by Moorhouse on the make-up of twentieth century Australians, with a particular focus on the influence of American culture and capitalism. It turns out this is one of a number of books by the writer, referred to as ‘discontinuous narratives’, with the various characters reappearing in each of the stories, collectively sharing an overarching thematic narrative.
It is a curious experiment and after I have concluded my little reading experiment, I can see myself tracking down the rest of this series.