TEXT review

The nothingness that should be something

review by Helen Gildfind


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:2016 OCTOBER REVIEWS:IMAGES:Waiting Philip Salom.jpg
Philip Salom
Puncher & Wattmann, Glebe NSW 2016
ISBN 9781922186836
Pb 345pp AUD29.95


Once you’ve met Big and Little you will never forget them, or ever want to leave them. They are the ultimate odd couple, living in a hostel in North Melbourne, a place full of troubled people that the nineteenth century would have called ‘down on their luck’ but which the twenty-first century just calls ‘losers’ (28).

Big is a ‘cross-dressing, pseudo-intellectual, show-off’ with ‘the autodidact’s weakness’ of having ‘extensive but loose knowledge’ (112-3). He is a well-read, eloquent, diabetic, Vietnam veteran and ex-shearer’s chef. What plagues Big is ‘not the black dog of depression but the grey hound of uncertainty’ (114). He ‘is the expert who must find an audience well beneath him’ (114). At first glance Little might seem to be this audience as she trots alongside Big ‘like a pup in blue denim’ (2). As the story unfurls, however, it is Little who is shown to have the guts and know-how to navigate the terrors of The Telephone, The Law, Family and Travel. Inseparable in life as they are in syntax (1), these two characters reveal themselves to have the uncommon strength to flout convention and make their own way in the world, despite (or because of?) the few choices they have: to dress as a woman when you are a big man, and to love a big man who dresses as a woman, are not the choices of the meek, mindless or downtrodden.

The foil to Big and Little are Jasmin and Angus, Little’s burly cousin. Jasmin is an academic semiologist, a wanderer in the abstract world of signs. Angus is a self-taught landscaper, a creator of the most concrete signifiers imaginable. Whilst Jasmin’s heavy work entails ‘lifting firmly but abstractly in a fixed firmament of alliterative and tautological shifts’ (9), Angus is a manly man – ‘very oi oi oi’ (9) – whose work literally entails moving rocks, though he does so with a wry awareness of the Myth of Sisyphus (56). They meet at an anniversary for those devastated by a recent bushfire: Angus also lives in the ‘fire shadow’ of trauma and ‘un-changing loss’ (10) that is the lot of these poor souls and that, perhaps, is everyone’s lot in the end. Meanwhile, Jasmin is coming to terms with the loss of a partner whom, she realises, she never really had at all.

Salom uses the intertwining stories of these four people to explore the theme of ‘waiting’ and its constituent themes of aloneness and loneliness, the tension between inner and outer worlds, and the love and intimacy that can, at least in part, overcome these things. This is also a novel about class that exposes the unjust differences between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, even as it shows the universality of the human condition: we are all waiting for something, no matter who we are or what we have. Little waits for her mother to die so that she and Big can have the money to be alone, together, in their own place. Big longs for ‘a life without further change’ (116) and begs Little to stop yearning: ‘This waiting will kill us. Best to be sensible. Expect nothing’ (345). Big knows waiting ‘is a terrible thing’ that ‘makes the waiter into the waiting. Noun into verb… It is passive, it is essentially a nothing until it is something’ (319). Likewise, Jasmin, who is ‘a terrible waiter’, knows that suspension ‘is far worse than suspense … it is the nothingness that should be something’ (76). Angus, too, knows he ‘is mad to keep waiting for something that he also worries about arriving’ (339).

If unemployment contributes to Big and Little’s status as fringe dwellers, Jasmin and Angus’s working worlds perhaps compel them to be surface dwellers: hers is a world of reading signed spaces, his is a world of making them; both worlds seek, but don’t quite find, the actual thing that is signified. If the reader senses something inauthentic in the middle class posturing and pretensions of these two, Jasmin and Angus seem to sense the same, and it is through sexual intimacy that they reach for something real. Ultimately, what differs most between the four characters is not just their classed realities but their (related?) attitudes to themselves: Little ‘accepts her Little-ness’ (203) whilst Big has ‘never attempted explanations of his trans-state … because he found himself as a man in a shift, not a shift in a man. It felt right’ (116). It is a triumph that this novel places the marginalised at its serious, if hilarious, centre, so they can talk back to those who might ridicule and stereotype them. But the novel’s greatest triumph is that it does this in a way that leaves the reader envying Big and Little. Importantly, though Salom writes with a deep affection and compassion for all of his characters, he does not indulge in saccharine sentimentalisation, idealisation or trivialisation. On the contrary, he shows that despite (or because of) their many hardships, Big and Little seem to achieve what most people can’t: a coexistence founded upon a genuine desire to accept, understand, support, and love each other, just as they are. ‘The lonely meet sometimes; compatibility is indeed a strange thing’ (32). As Angus proclaims, ‘I am lonely! Even Little is not lonely’ (229), and what is loneliness but ‘the worst tense of all’ (304)?

Another striking thing about this novel is Salom’s use of language and place. Single sentences are loaded with alliterative play, multiple meanings and endless jokes. Passages of prose read like stream-of-consciousness music, each sentence – or line – having its own unique grammar and rhythm that evokes the mindscape of each character. This energetic playfulness allows readers to hurtle along with the narrative, or stop and savour the language itself: it is unique to have such narrative drive and linguistic sophistication in the same book, and so, whilst Waiting is certainly ‘serious literature’, it is also a great read. Just as skilfully, Salom evokes the physical, political and cultural reality of contemporary, urban Australia with a multitude of salient details and a total lack of the apologetic self-consciousness that tinges so much ‘Antipodean’ writing of place. This insistent, natural realism grounds Big and Little in a real world that disallows readers from dismissing them as mere flights of fictional fancy.

Waiting is a laugh-out-loud, poignant novel about the struggle of individual mortals to relate to themselves and each other in a brutally capitalist, godless world. This novel explores the very real differences between people even as it reveals the universals that unite them. One might ask why Salom – a prolific writer of poetry and prose, who has won many awards for his work over the past three decades – is not a more prominent figure in the Australian literary scene. Our culture needs writers of this calibre to challenge not only how we see ourselves and Others, but how we use language to enable or blinker that seeing.



Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has had reviews, essays, fiction and poetry published in Australia and overseas.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste