de Kretser, Michelle. Scary Monsters. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2021. RRP: $32.99, 320 pp, ISBN: 9781761065101.
Michelle de Kretser’s Scary Monsters is a novel of two faces, two halves. As soon as you weigh the book in your hands, de Kretser gives you a choice: where will you begin? There are no clues to help you decide. Everything within the book is mirrored: the number of pages, the publishing details, the acknowledgements. Your choice is a kind of Rorschach: you must judge this book by its covers—a lone cherry set on deep magenta, or delicate white blossom. This challenge—for it is a challenge set for us by the author—simply yet radically disrupts traditional narrative linearity, which establishes the tone for the two halves of de Kretser’s reversible novel. This intellectual acuity should not come as a surprise; de Kretser’s literary credentials—which include two Miles Franklin awards—are immaculate.
I chose to begin with the cherry blossom, with the story of Lyle. He and his wife, Chanel, live in an Australia of the future, as imagined by de Kretser. It is a familiarly alien landscape. The country is gripped with economic sanctions over its ‘climate no-policy’ (78); photographs of collapsing ecosystems are prohibited; there is a Permanent Fire Zone; fear of the next pandemic looms; Islam is banned. Lyle and Chanel live in Melbourne, having emigrated to Australia from Asia. Theirs is a story of hope—edged with ambition and fear. Through the urging of Chanel, the couple become proto-Macbeths as they forcefully induce the self-assisted suicide of Ivy, Lyle’s fragile—and ultimately impractical—mother. Once unburdened, the couple are able to continue their scramble to achieve ‘what every immigrant longs for: invisibility’ (14).
During this time, Chanel begins to develop a peculiar condition: her skin starts to lose pigmentation. Despite moving to separate bedrooms, Lyle also falls prey to this whitening, deracinating disease. The couple hide their condition, but it is ultimately a physical manifestation of what they inwardly desire: to become unremarkable and untethered from their past. In seeking a ‘place free of history’ (31), Lyle and Chanel hope that there will be no way to knit the two halves of past and present together. Immigrants like them face the fact that their ‘old, whole’ identities are ‘gone for good’ (15). As Lyle observes:
Immigration breaks people. We try to reconstitute ourselves in our new countries, but pieces of us have disappeared. Immigrants are people with missing pieces. Those of us who assume that the pieces can still be found […] become people with suitcases—they keep going back, looking for ways to plug the gaps. (15–16)
Lyle doesn’t ‘make [the] mistake’ of trying to locate his old self, but rather savours the immersion of assimilation (16). ‘Don’t look back,’ Chanel advises. ‘It’s not the Australian way […] The whole point of Australia is to bet on the future’ (43). Yet the couple’s history clings to them irrevocably, even as Lyle criticises Indigenous Australians for being ‘a living reminder of the past’ (43). This idea of the stickiness of personal history—and what it means to try to erase it—echoes a sentiment from Sara Ahmed, who suggests that ‘you bring your past encounters with you when you arrive’ (Ahmed 40). For Lyle and Chanel, arrival is a constantly evolving state, rather than a located destination. The concept that bodies remember their histories weighs heavily on Lyle’s story, even as the landscape of dystopian Australia subsides under a litany of disasters.
In contrast, flipping Scary Monsters and beginning to read Lili’s narrative feels beautiful and unearthly, like being lost and then suddenly found. We’re in the south of France, following Lili as she navigates her life as an English language teacher. Her best friends are rich, white and languorous—Nick writes, while Minna is a Vivienne Westwood figure, obsessed with the world of clothes. Lili is Australian, but her family—like Lyle’s—emigrated from Asia. Just as there is ‘something brutal about being flung into a foreign language—something thrilling, too’ (13) there is something wild and opulent about this half of Scary Monsters. de Kretser achieves a great emotional depth and clarity through Lili’s voice—there is a lushness and almost-sensuality to her fierce, de Beauvoirian intelligence and wit.
Lilli’s story is located cleverly in time by de Kretser. It moves from late 1980 to early 1981 through a series of historical occurrences which are seemingly incidental to her story: the philosopher Louis Althusser murders his wife and goes to trial; Prince Charles and Lady Diana are engaged; the Spanish coup d’état attempt takes place. These events are flawlessly incorporated into Lili’s world, becoming subtle timestamps without ever feeling heavy-handed. ‘John Lennon had been murdered’, observes Lili at one point, ‘and we drank a lot of wine to cheer up’ (49). In this way, de Kretser captures the sheer mundanity of ordinary life continuing against a wider social and political space. Another example is how the case of the Yorkshire Ripper threads itself through Lili’s consciousness: his story runs parallel to Lili’s, and feeds into her recurring fear of, and fascination with, physical and sexual assault.
The concept of the body as a space is as important to Lili’s narrative consciousness as it is Lyle’s. This is woven together with the song which titles the novel: David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Freaks)’, which dropped in mid-September 1980—another of those temporal signatures:
He was a scary monster for sure I said, citing the Thin White Duke’s admiration for Hitler. Deb said that Bowie hadn’t meant it like that. Every white Bowie fan I knew had told me the same thing. Deb’s skin was faintly blue like milk. (8)
Bodies play out in a melee of power: of desire, and the desire for belonging. Minna tells Lili that her skin is ‘the most beautiful colour’ (45, emphasis in original). ‘A crack of disappointment’ opens up inside Lili: she interprets her friend’s words as a self-laudatory declaration that she ‘find[s] dark skin attractive—congratulate me!’ (45). Ultimately, Lili observes that bodies wear and remember their histories even when their inhabitants have forgotten them—desire orientates us, whether we notice it or not.
For the casual reader of Scary Monsters, this question may arise: what links these two narratives, besides tangential themes? It is only through close reading that you make the connection. This is a delayed shock, a belated twist in the story, and one which registers subtly.
In presenting us with Scary Monsters, de Kretser has set more than simply a challenge of where to begin reading two interlocking narratives. She asks what it means to live in times through which ecological breakdown and bodily displacement exist side by side: what do we find more threatening? Which is the scarier monster?
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2008.
Ellie Fisher (she/her) is a poet living on unceded Menang Noongar land. Ellie’s creative work has been featured in Westerly 67.1, Gems zine and Pulch Magazine, amongst others. After completing her undergraduate degree in English and History at the University of Western Australia this year, she plans on studying Honours in Creative Writing at UWA in 2023.