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Melbourne life was fine, if a little prosaic. It’s a big city but a small town, and having grown up here I couldn’t go to a bar or get a cup of coffee without running into someone I knew. It was a giant playground of everyone I’d ever met in my life, for better or worse. To find anonymity it was necessary to put a few oceans between us.
One summer I set out for Paris with my best mate, on a mission to put my lazy grasp of French to the test. It was also an opportunity to indulge my teenage fascination with all things French.
I had one goal though. To visit Shakespeare and Company, a legendary bookshop where the staff walked in off the street to accept an offer of bed and board in return for work. I was going to try and get myself a job there, or inveigle my way in with the penseurs who would meet in an upstairs room and debate philosophy and literature. I did go to Shakespeare and Company. I even found the room, with a group of people from around the world excitedly arguing in French about, well something or other (have I mentioned my French isn’t great?). I stood there for a moment, backed out and left.
I realized that my dreams of being an arty Parisian intellectual type were just that – dreams. I preferred the easy banter of my mates, the calming isolation in reading Dostoyevsky, or Camus, and knowing I did not have to justify my choice. Beneath all that there was a growing resentment for pretentiousness and the realization that life goes on outside the pages of a book.
Patrick O’Neil’s book is about how he drew inspiration for his adventures across the globe from the literary fiction of Franz Kafka, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Desperately concerned at the prospect of living a conventional life, he flees the suburbs of Melbourne on three seperate occasions during his twenties, leaving family, studies, work and relationships to wait for his return.
As the first third of the book is dedicated to Kafka, O’Neil heads off to Europe, landing in London after an exhausting trans-continental flight on a cheap airline. There he is put up by a friend in a ritzy apartment. Deciding that this degree of comfort is yet another ‘gilded cage’, he books a ticket on a ferry for Amsterdam. Arriving finally in the wee hours of the morning O’Neil realizes he is alone in a strange city, surrounded by drug addicts and prostitutes and should anything happen to him no one will even know to look for him there. He is catapulted into a night of paranoia and fear, much like something conjured up by the frenzied imagination of Kafka himself.
His subsequent adventures follow the same pattern. Disenchantment at home sends him free-wheeling across the globe chasing literary dragons. A new foreign land, the confusion that results from the language barrier and the skewed perception that follows ingesting psychedelics. He meets some fascinating characters off on their own mad adventures. O’Neil himself is marched back and forth across foreign borders, threatened by gun-toting criminals, arrested by corrupt South American cops on drugs charges and almost dies in a car-wreck. He faces the threat of death on several occasions, but seemingly the experience of living with a compulsive New York neurotic is the most spirit-crushing.
However, the experience of reading this memoir makes for a far more frustrating journey. O’Neil cheerfully describes himself as mad on one or two occasions, but a complete lack of common sense – coupled with a near-total degree of self-absorption – makes for a dreary narrative. It is like reading Walden and discovering the author was hanging out on a mate’s private estate.
The other issue is that the characters encountered by O’Neil seem a lot more interesting, such as a Belgian psytrance documentarian, or a Manhatannite drag queen. Instead we have to contend with the narrator’s own half-baked ponderings. A de rigeur appearance of Carlos Castaneda during a peyote session was the personal low-point for me. He was a fraud who used the women attracted by his shamanic nonsense about Toltecs and disguised pure bunkum as wisdom.
The book’s muses – Kafka, Thompson and Kerouac – are imitated in an overly literal manner. Reading the book felt like sitting next to a teenager on a long-distance bus ride who’s read the CliffsNotes summaries.
Tired, dated and frustrating. First-world tourist pornography.
“I know there’s no rational explanation for this, but I’m being sucked into the stories told by some of the callers. I mean, literally, all of a sudden their voices start dragging me in and my surroundings change. Just like that, I leave the radio station and become an unwilling participant in their terrifying episodes.”
Does anyone else remember Midnight Caller? It was a show about an ex-cop, played by Gary Cole, who was working as a talkshow host who would take an interest in the callers who rang up and would solve crimes on the side. I loved that show….when I was ten. Perhaps that is why when I first started suffering from insomnia as a teenager, I embraced talk radio, as it filled in the blank hours waiting in the dark for sleep to come. I have always had an interest in listening to people’s stories, their interactions with the host, who would often dispense his wisdom in a half flirtatious, half condescending manner.
There is something there for a horror writer to work with. Radio waves floating through the night, the intimate voices broadcast into bedrooms seeming like an invisible friend who comes to you at when you cannot sleep. As such, I was hoping that this book would take advantage of the story potential on offer.
Joaquin is the host of Ghost Radio, a show that airs during the wee hours of the morning that encourages listeners to ring in with stories of their experience with the paranormal. Everyone gets the chance to tell a story. Joaquin’s girlfriend Alondra is far more skeptical of these weird anonymous confessions, whereas producer Watt has unusual habits of his own. Ghost Radio has just made the big jump to success, recently debuting in the States after having developed a cult following in Mexico.
Joaquin is no stranger to cult status, having previously been in a band named Los Deathmuertoz, described as ‘a Latin rock, punk, experimental, progressive band’ formed with his best friend Gabriel, born out a shared love for Dead Kennedys and Einstürzende Neubauten. One night during an illegal broadcast from an abandoned radio station, a freak electrical surge caused their pirated equipment to explode. Gabriel died instantly and Joaquin has only just recovered from the trauma. In many ways Ghost Radio is his coping mechanism. He is convinced there is more to life and death.
Alondra worries that Joaquin is becoming too attached to the stories he listens to on the show. He frequently disappears into a trance, reliving the experiences described by his callers. His behavior becomes increasingly irrational as he loses time and he begins to hear voices calling to him over the airwaves. There is something else out there, something that knows him from long ago, taunting him with the hidden reason as to how he survived the event that led to Gabriel’s death. Why does the voice sound so familiar?
The majority of the novel features conversations between Joaquin and his callers, with their stories becoming weird vignettes describing soldiers returning from the dead; little girls playing with gory dolls; and the haunting tale of a Chinese ‘ghost bride’. Joaquin’s own story and the fraying of his mental state, which is somehow connected to the Aztec legends of the Toltecs, acts more as a framing device for these tales. The book itself is a confused mixture of urban legends and Carlos Castenada bunkum.
It does not help that the initial half of the book features a series of intercutting flashbacks, detailing the adolescent experiences of Gabriel and Joaquin and then jumping forward in time to the growing success of Ghost Radio itself. What is more this book is another victim of what I am coming to regard as pop culture character shorthand. The lyrics quoted from punk bands and the name checking of underground artists is intended to tell us all we need to know about Joaquin, Alondra and Gabriel, as opposed to actually describing their characters. It comes off as needless decoration, unsuspended associations and referencing of pop culture. The characters speak in stilted sentences, which only add to the sense of unreality. Do people talk like this? Is any of it happening, or is it just a strange dream?
Ultimately this book touches on interesting notions – Aztec cult worship and the scratchy voices of ghosts carried by radio waves through the night – but fails to blend these elements into a coherent whole.