from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Sweeney and the Bicycles’ by Philip Salom

Salom, Philip. Sweeney and the Bicycles. Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2022. RRP: $32.99, 408pp, ISBN: 9781925760996.

Shaeden Berry

‘Why […] do we do that—liken each other to famous people?’ our protagonist Sweeney asks his psychiatrist, and then adds: ‘As if our own faces aren’t enough’. (157)

The idea of faces, and how they relate to identity, is central to Philip Salom’s Sweeney and the Bicycles, released in Australia by Transit Lounge. The Miles Franklin Award short-listed author delivers a beautifully written novel, filled with unexpected tenderness and warmth as it weaves its way through issues of trauma and family, both blood and found.

Sweeney, having endured an abusive childhood, veers from life in a commune where he regularly stole drugs, to a stint in jail that ends in a traumatic brain injury which marks his skull with an ‘S’-shaped scar. Now out of prison, Sweeney splits his time between living in a boarding house and in the house left to him by his grandmother. He attends regular therapy with a psychiatrist named Asha Sen, and he also compulsively steals bicycles. The brain injury has left Sweeney with issues of anger management and obsessive compulsion. The release of stealing bicycles is the only moment in which he feels free.

As the novel progresses, we are introduced to the cast of characters that intersect with Sweeney’s life. Within the boarding house, Sweeney has created his own makeshift family, consisting of Froggie, Jim Smith and the fatherly figure of The Sheriff. It is with these misfits that Sweeney finds the comfort and belonging that was denied him by his parents. Outside the boarding house, a chance meeting brings Rose, our novel’s second protagonist, and by extension her sister, into Sweeney’s orbit. The two sisters share incredible facial similarities. Their ‘sharing’ of the same face, in a sense, has led them to lead lives unhealthily intertwined, as if the parallels of their appearance must equal a parallel in identities.

The psychiatrist Asha Sen becomes another central figure to the novel, a protagonist in her own right. Her husband, Bruce Leach, works in surveillance and the novel is dotted with references to drones and hidden cameras that track the public. Leach himself is obsessed with the scanning of faces using AI technology in order to catalogue them and then file them away for cross-referencing.  In this way, the novel’s protagonists—Sweeney, Asha, Rose—are surrounded by ideas regarding the faces they present to the public, and the intersection between those facades and our inner worlds.

The AI Leach uses maps lines and curves but is categorically flawed, programmed as it is by an equally flawed team of human beings, more preoccupied with money and acquisitions than ethics and nuance. Asha rightfully points out to her husband the AI’s inability to distinguish the faces of people of colour and the subsequent racial profiling that occurs because of that. This raises the question of how impartial AI can ever truly be when it is programmed by humans who carry their own biases and prejudices. As Salom writes, ‘the algorithm learns from human input’ (130).

The conversations between Asha and her husband parry back and forth on issues of the outer world versus the inner world. The contrast of the psychiatrist interested in what happens inside one’s brain, and the surveillance engineer who is only concerned with the outer, make for an interesting, and ill-suited, marital dynamic. Asha presents a voice of ethical concern to contrast the cold analytical diatribe of her husband:

You are identifying people, she says, without knowing anything about them.

We know who they are.

You do not. You know what they are. Name, address, circumstances. Cold data and often not even true. (135)

Sweeney subverts the notion of facial recognition, deliberately obfuscating his facial features with elaborate designs to avoid detection. However, it is through this face painting that Sweeney’s inner world is reflected on his face. The everyday mask Sweeney wears of a good-looking young man is not reflective of the fragmented sense of self within. One particularly poignant moment sees him ruminate on the CT scans he endured following his brain injury, particularly the injection of ‘the dye that seeped through his brain’ (20). There are clear parallels between the lines of dye that light up under the scan and the ‘lines at broken angles, crazy pixelated patches’ (14) that Sweeney draws on his face. He reflects that perhaps the dye ‘remained there and emerged on his face for all to see when he stole abandoned bicycles’ (20).

The moments of stealing the bicycles are, by Sweeney’s own admission, the points at which he feels his freest self. It makes sense, therefore, that the lines ‘emerge’ in these instances, so that his outside finally reflects his inside.

Thought-provoking and, in an unnerving way, thoroughly relevant in its discussion of government surveillance, Salom has delivered a novel that layers amusement with moments of quiet devastation, both delivered in prose that somehow manages to exist in a dichotomy of soft exploration and concise terseness.

The novel asks us to consider the faces we wear in public. How much are we revealing? How much are others seeing? And how much can we reconcile our outward appearance with our inner world?

Shaeden Berry is a writer from Boorloo with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Murdoch University. She has written for Kill Your Darlings, Refinery29, MamaMia and Fashion Journal. Her short stories will be featured in the upcoming anthologies: The Unexpected Party by Fremantle Press, and Strange by MidnightSun Publishing.

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