MKretser’s ichelle fiction does more than invite us; it forces us to introduce ourselves. The reward is room for wonder in both senses of the word. But his new novel requires tactile participation. Scary Monsters is heavily divided in the middle. One half tells a realistic story from the early 1980s, the other half conjures up a gruesome – and plausible – view of Australia’s near future. Either could function as the act of opening the book, and Kretser places the choice between our scratched hands.
Scary Monsters is a creature with two heads: two stories, two covers. In his seventh novel, the author turns the proverb into a challenge: try to judge this book by its cover. And how will you choose? Will you trust your eyes? To seek the linear comfort of the chronology, or to roll back the clock like a capricious little god? Flip a coin and give in to luck? Even no decision at all – blind making – is its own type of decision.
De Kretser’s previous novel, The Life to Come (2017) – the second of his books to win the Miles Franklin Award – was also told in low-key stories: a string of five jostling pearls. Brilliantly distant, this novel had an ordinal logic and recurring characters to lead us from tale to tale. By dropping both – no order, no guides – Scary Monsters creates even more room for the connecting energies of Kretser’s readership. Those who loved Lisa Halliday’s duel short stories Asymmetry (2018) will revel in the interpretive possibilities.
There is a whiff of gadget about it, but also that rarest pleasure in high literature: playing. And knowing that we are responsible for the form this book takes makes us all the more mindful – mindful of wormholes and echoes, and de Kretser’s heather spirit. Is there a question hidden in the first story that the second could answer? Is this the same question that would arise if they were reversed? We can’t really know, because what we encounter in the first half of Scary Monsters will haunt the second. This novel is a reminder that memory is a kind of poltergeist – its own frightening monster.
And so we start with Lili (past) or Lyle (future): two immigrant Australians, both of Asian origin. Lili teaches English to high school students in the south of France, waiting to see if she has been accepted for postgraduate studies at Oxford. She is young and intelligent and “streaked with fuzzy ambition”. It was the last months of 1980 and the French elections were looming, with the possibility of a gradual shift decisive for the era. âAt that time, I believed that the past could be left behind like a country,â she recalls.
Alone in her student accommodation, with her rationed warmth, Lili longs for a kind of recognition of kinship, to be seen. She’s tired of living shy, intimidated by this unspoken Australian pressure “to sneak in and go unnoticed” – to be a model immigrant. When she meets the flamboyant and punk Minna – a girl driven by subversive artistic projects and great aesthetic theories – a friendship comes to life. But is it a bond of mutual affection, or just another costume in wealthy Minna’s moral wardrobe, a friendship she wears for the show?
Lili’s story promises nostalgia – dappled light and hopeful youth – but her memories are fraught with menace. European newspapers are teeming with blood-splattered stories about the Yorkshire Ripper, and Lili’s downstairs neighbor is terribly attentive. It’s a red world of lipstick stains, blood clots, and ripe, swollen cherries; of horror movie nervousness. Lili watches the North African immigrants gathered and evacuated from the city center – the precious historic center – as French schoolchildren proudly read the story of Camus’ The Stranger Killing an Arab, and treat it all as an existential metaphor. âIt was the start for me to think about why some people had a story and others a life,â explains Lili. Each page of its history seems loaded, like an open circuit awaiting its change; a punch that hides. It is a magnificent writing, without equal.
Meanwhile, in a palpable future, Lyle is an unpretentious bureaucrat in a sinister government entity – the Department – with his eyes also fixed on the future (“Don’t look back. This isn’t the Australian way. “). After the pandemic, our federation became a police state, a hyper-corporatized kingdom of compliance. Islam is outlawed and the policy of maintaining order is based on punitive repatriation (âone in four immigrant grandparents is enoughâ). Year-round bushfires cloud the air, summer temperatures reach 50 degrees, and the Great Barrier Reef is a whitewashed mausoleum. Yet it is illegal to talk about what has been lost or to campaign against inequality. In this Australia, the only way forward is to forget. (Was it ever really different?)
In his ‘Colgate-white’ kit home on the outskirts of Melbourne, tucked away on Spumante Court and around the corner of Cold Duck Parade, Lyle longs for the safety of middle management anonymity. While Lili longs to be seen, Lyle longs for competent invisibility. But his wife, Chanel, is ambitious. What could the couple be willing to sacrifice to live in quiet prosperity?
Layered over Lyle’s Orwellian terrors, Kretser paints a burlesque – a comedy with a grinning face. She conjures up a future where kids are called Ikea and Prada, and commuters play Whack-a-Mullah on their phones, goads of cattle ready to fight their way through the hordes of homeless people. There are a few tired gags here – Gwyneth Paltrow’s vaginal candle and Justin Bieber tribute albums – and also some of the uncomfortable mirth that satire often elicits. But the grotesques here are all our own making.
To start Scary Monsters, you need to turn the half of the book that is unfavorable to you upside down. It’s a neat and laborious metaphor. âWhen my family emigrated, I felt like we were on top of things,â Lily tells us. âEvents and their meanings have come to us from different angles. This is how De Kretser gives us a puzzling and angular novel. Lyle and Lili’s stories can be read as checks and balances, but the truest monster of this book is the possibility that there is only one way to read it: our complacency and its terrifying punchline.