Orr, Stephen. This Excellent Machine. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2019. RRP: $34.95, 492 pp, ISBN: 9781743056134.
“Truth’s better than just about anything,’ she said.
‘I was throwing at Kenny but . . .’
She didn’t reply.
‘Now you feel better, I bet.’
And then, Mr Gottl himself, calling me in. ‘Carn, Clem. What you doing?’
As I clung to the tree I said, ‘How much you reckon it’d cost to fix?”
She shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter.’
She reached up, and I could see the old turkey giblets dangling under her arms, and she threw the lemon back.’
I caught it. ‘We got English now.’ (2)
Right from the get-go you know the world you are in.
This Excellent Machine traces the life of Clem from the beginning of a school year he doesn’t want to endure right to the end, where experience has changed him into a man. It’s the new novel from literary acrobat Stephen Orr—he swings along from allusion to illusion, spins the words and drops them so that they land perfectly in a field of metaphor. Keep a look out for turning points or important moments because they will be there and gone before you notice. To say that he writes in an understated style is to understate it; what he leaves out goes exactly to the limit of what can be left out. Keep looking—a master of dialogue and pinpoint description, Orr’s writing stealthily makes you complicit in its created world.
Clem is the narrator, a sixteen-year-old year 12 student, waiting for everything ‘alcohol, sex with real women, money and freedom’ (122) to start, while trying to do the right thing. School isn’t what it should be; the teachers mostly don’t care and neither do the students. They are looking at some appalling dead ends, lives of irrelevance and lack of opportunity. Too bad that Clem and his mate Curtis are so bright—it’s not that they particularly hide this fact, but they don’t want to toe the line either. Home is safe enough, but the neighbourhood abounds with dodgy characters, drugs, violence and secrets—especially secrets that Clem needs to find out before he can grow up properly, secrets about his missing dad, about past sins and misdemeanours, about the self that he hasn’t discovered yet.
Everyone on Lanark Avenue knows everyone else, and they’re doing their best to keep going and care for each other. Set in 1984, the novel has lots of references to George Orwell’s 1984—just in case we don’t get the pervading feeling of a hopeless fight against the odds. Pop fixes old cars, dreams of Lasseter’s Reef and watches Wheel of Fortune. Next door, the man in a wheelchair sits out the front all day, clocking the street. The failure of the wider society stares out from the apathy of people who are too discouraged to try and change their lives. And in a cringeworthy way there’s a huge sensibility gap between an action and its consequences; a belief that the worst thing is people knowing (reference Curtis’s attitude to his pregnant girlfriend: after he refuses to support her through her pregnancy or act as a father by insisting on an abortion, she humiliates him by putting up nude photos of him around the school. To Curtis this is worse by far than his own actions).
Still Clem grows; during the year he goes from feeling ‘pushed to the margins of some world you’ve barely entered. Known you don’t belong, like no one can see you, or cares about you or what you think’ (110), to a ‘gradual coming-to-see that a man had to do what a man had to do. Like me, surveying my melamine future, and knowing I’d do anything, no matter how irrational’ when he has reconnected with his old girlfriend (395).
I am kind of sad to see what a bloke’s book This Excellent Machine is. The story is about a young man coming of age, with a young man’s problems. That’s all fine, but the girls get a bit of a rough go:
We stood watching Pop. He said, ‘You gotta learn, Clemmy. You can’t trust any of them.’
‘They’re welded to their mothers. No man can change that . . . you learn to work them out.’ (407)
Another disappointment for me personally was the deus ex machina type resolution to Pop’s search for Lasseter’s Reef when, after 50 years of stubborn belief, he changes his mind and gives up the quest, after just one phone call telling him that his map has also been sold to dozens of people from the local pub.
At heart, This Excellent Machine is all about the journey—Clem’s journey to adulthood parallel to his Pop’s journey into dementia parallel to their journey together to find Lasseter’s Reef in a Datsun 120Y. It’s a novel that gives off the aura of nostalgia, as if this world, though flawed, has disappeared and we all still long for it and the feeling of connection that seemed to come with it. None of this tale would happen now, with so much media, internet, and noise in the air. People don’t stare through their windows, watching the street; their friends are not next door but on social media. Leisure time is spoken for by digital living and its swirls of colour—noise and excitement that doesn’t invite the slow study of the world that takes place in this novel. The craftmanship is excellent so enjoy the feeling and the journey, because those days won’t be returning to us any time soon.
Originally from the east coast of the United States, Patricia Johnson has had stories and poetry published in dotdotdash, Re-Placement 2008, and Lines in the Sand, 2008, Windmills Spring, 2013, as well as in online journals. She has been an editor for dotdotdash magazine, covering poetry and short stories. She is the current President of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Western Australia. Her latest project is a ghost story of novella size, currently looking for a publisher :).