Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Sex and Sport:

A review of two recent novels

Kylie Ladd, Last Summer, Allen and Unwin 2011

Matt Nable, Faces in the Clouds, Viking 2011

Sex and sport. It’s taken a while, but these two activities are now staples of Australian literature. No longer is sex performed off-stage, coyly, metaphorically. No longer is sport the excluded other to literary culture, represented fleetingly, badly, marginally if at all. Sex and sport are there in their full, billowing glory for all to see. As they should be.

Kylie Ladd’s Last Summer is set in the fictional Yarra Yarra cricket club. It opens with the death of a leading player at training, an event that devastates the little community centred on the club. Subsequent chapters are focalised (a la The Slap) through each of the main characters to reveal how tightly the community bonds were woven and how Rory’s demise causes them to unravel.

Ladd’s riffing on the micro-politics of the cricket club was convincing – though the crusty old-timers on the executive at most clubs were unmentioned. And her understanding of parental angst at junior cricket is highly developed and wry.

But this unraveling matrix has a paradoxical feeling of stasis to it. While the characters are rightly interconnected, they have no deep personal histories. The wholly middle-class cast, full of private-school types, architects, builders, social workers and museum curators is presented as if having always been the same people, born into the middle class and destined to stay there. There’s a good story in this material but Ladd hasn’t told it.

And the sex scenes, while many, are invaried. It’s as if the same woman via different characters’ bodies expresses one constrained, chick-lit version of sexuality.

I guess some women get off on the prospect of being taken and fucked (on a blanket in a paddock, in front of a mirror, or up against a shower screen) by a man with a “slug” (or, if he has a little one, one who certainly knows how to use it). Good luck to them. But if 90s grunge did one thing, it paved the way for the complex and explicit representation of the sexual act. Ladd, while entertaining and imaginative on this front, has simply not been brave or expansive enough.

Faces in the Clouds is also a novel of constriction. Matt Nable’s portrayal of a family dually cloistered by the army barracks and the Catholic Church is purposefully claustrophobic.

It tells the story of twin boys, Stephen and Lawrence Kennedy and their doomed parents Terry and Leila, killed in a car accident when the boys are barely over ten.

Their parents’ deaths bring a release from the strictures of their early upbringing. The army life and Catholicism, and their inevitable scars, are necessarily left behind as the boys stumble their way into adulthood.

Their story is complicated by Lawrence’s damaged body and mind. It is never made clear exactly what is wrong with Lawrence, though his good friend Henry Holmes knows. We’re “retards” he exclaims.

The teenage friendship between Henry and Lawrence is one of the many endearing parts of this book. Whenever (creative supermarket trolley collector and surely one of the great characters in Australian literature) Henry enters the narrative, reading becomes an uncertain, razor-edged joy. The friends engineer an audacious trip to Sydney to go to the Big Day Out, watch Manly play and get a “root” – all of which they achieve.

Lawrence’s limits are medical, Stephen’s are spiritual. His sexuality is so repressed by the Church and other events that he is reluctant even to masturbate. His first sexual act is therefore a moment of great significance. Stephen has sex with his older housemate’s girlfriend, solving one problem while creating another.

Perhaps the difference between the way Nable and Ladd write sex is a gendered one, but I was more interested by Nable’s description. Less formulaic, his scene was replete with the base human foibles (and the smells and fluids) missing in Ladd’s writing.

Nable writes of class and the possibilities of human change as well as any contemporary Australian writer. He is also a writer who consistently finds the poetic in a simple moment or gesture. Many of the chapters end with powerful twists or affirmations that take their bearings from the stars of love and kindness. Christos Tsiolkas claims he creates “a kind of magic”. I can see why.

In the end though, I love Nable’s writing because of the way he uses sport. The characters in this book live in a Rugby League culture. Some ignore it. Some like it. Some (like Henry) are obsessed by it. Nable gets this balance just right. If a writer can understand where sport fits, the rest should come automatically. And with Nable it does.

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