TEXT review

Navel gazing in the eighties

review by Jeremy Fisher


Grant Caldwell
Love & Derangement
Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne 2014
ISBN 9781925003871
Pb 220pp AUD29.95


Grant Caldwell’s novel Love & Derangement is set in the eighties, mostly in Sydney with the odd excursion to Melbourne, the North Coast or Queensland. From the acknowledgments it is clear that it has had a long gestation, with part of it having been written as a MA thesis for the University of Melbourne. It concerns Aiden Wallis, a writer and poet. Aiden is continually producing small books from small presses, and, given Caldwell’s own copious output of small books from small presses, there is some temptation to read an autobiographical element into the book. This would be unwise.

The author has obviously drawn on his experiences and knowledge of Sydney’s underbelly in the eighties but surely cannot have perceived himself as Aiden Wallis. Aiden Wallis remains immature, even in his mid-thirties. While I felt some familiarity with Aiden’s discontinuous recollection of his life, he was difficult to sympathise with due to his apathetic, anti-social and narcissistic nature. He whined about how he couldn’t talk to people, how he didn’t have friends, how he lived for years on the dole rarely considering looking for employment, and, to me, seemed to be an unkempt grot living in squats or the equivalent thereof. I kept wishing he would take a shower. In one of many instances of name-dropping, Aidan paraphrases Flaubert: ‘to be happy, first you must be healthy, selfish and stupid’ (50). That summarises Aiden.

Aiden’s drug and alcohol consumption is detailed, with acid trips and stones excruciatingly described. That he manages to maintain a writing routine through all this is surprising, but he does, doggedly sending off poems and stories to literary journals and slowly producing his little books. He does have relationships, but his female partners remain one-dimensional, and his selfishness is clearest when they have abortions. He has male friends, with Jack given some attention. The two collaborate on an art exhibition with an associated limited edition book of poems. The men’s friendship disintegrates in a physical argument over drugs and theft related to the book of poems.

The dirt and sleaze of Darlinghurst is almost palpable as Aiden continues in his search for his great literary work at the expense of meaningful human relationships. Some passages in this section where Aiden reflects on his relationship with his father could have been further edited; they appear to add little to the character or story and read as Freudian tangents. Rimbaud is quoted. Aiden is at least sufficiently self-aware to know he is a loser. His drug use continues and he starts using heroin, smoking but not injecting, encouraged by the junkie musician Lenny. A key scene sees him witnessing Lenny and his partner Marion shoot up, Marion suckling their child Opal still with a needle in her arm.

After this, he continues to use drugs, but not heroin, and gamble. His life unravels; an unravelling largely not shown, as the narration engages quotes from Kafka and mentions the authors and books read. Aiden undergoes a conversion to macrobiotics and Eastern philosophy, and Emma enters the story, a woman much younger than Aiden, who is now nearly forty. She is moody; he replaces drugs with yoga and meditation, then I Ching. He becomes rather obsessive in his pursuit of healthy eating, then, just as he is about to ask her to move in with him, Emma tells him she is moving to Leichhardt to live with a man called Michael. Aiden sees this as inevitable, part of a cosmic plan. He becomes even more obsessive. Emma, now using speed, leaves Michael and resumes an on-off relationship with Aiden. This is good for neither of them. Emma becomes pregnant to another man, and the novel peters out.

Overall, this book is written in relatively formal style. It is rarely colloquial in tone. Editorial issues were noted, such as missing prepositions, the odd ‘kilometer’ or ‘maneuveur’, and other minor glitches such as ‘Blackwood’ being the next town to Katoomba instead of Blackheath. As well, an editor might have advised against the regular use of parenthetical interventions which disrupt yet serve no narrative purpose. It was also unclear what was achieved by the use of italics to highlight certain phrases. The continued use of ‘Lunar Park’ for Luna Park appears intentional since there is a moon-based pun, then the venerable Sydney institution is correctly named two sentences on.

Nevertheless, this is essentially a competently told story about a man confused about himself and his place in the world. It has its flaws – consistency of voice, a variable point of view and a meandering structure, for instance – but no more so than most of the books produced by much larger publishers than Australian Scholarly Publishing. Because it is about a man, major publishers would run a mile from it. They only want books about women because the marketing data show that women are the majority of book buyers and readers. Yet we need male stories like Love & Derangement not only to bring males back to reading but also to document the full human story.

This is by no means a perfect book, but it is far from being a bad one. Grant Caldwell can be proud of his achievement.



Jeremy Fisher teaches writing at the University of New England, Armidale.


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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins