‘Demons’ by Wayne Macauley

Demons

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

A couple of years ago I read Australian writer Wayne Macauley’s The Cook, a deliciously dark satire about modern gastronomy, which amused and disturbed me in equal measure. Indeed, it was one of the most memorable — and original — books I’ve read in, say, the past four or five years.

His new book, Demons, has just been published in the UK and, for obvious reasons, I was keen to read it.

The narrative, as such, is structured around a group of (annoyingly) middle-class (snobby and pretentious) friends, who spend a  weekend together in a holiday home by the coast on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. There’s no TV or internet at the property and they’ve all agreed to leave their phones and tablets behind so that they can truly unwind from their busy lives. It’s winter and the weather is rather wild, which makes the getaway rather conducive to sitting around the fire, imbibing wine (there’s a lot of wine in this book) and telling tales.

All right, said Lauren, once everyone was seated in the living room. The sky had darkened and a full moon was rising over the water. The sea was loud, but faraway loud. All right, she said, I’m going to start. My story is called Woman Killed By Falling Man.
Are we going to give them titles? said Evan.
Adam, said Hannah, do you think we should give them titles?
Titles are good, said Adam.
Wait, said Megan. She handed Lauren the piece of driftwood she’d brought back from the beach. The story stick, she said.

Dark tales

The book is structured around these individual tales, each one more ludicrous and outlandish than the last. They span all kinds of dark and edgy themes, including adultery, suicide and murder, with a good smattering of politics, crime and corruption thrown in for good measure.

Most of them are embellished and dramatised to a ridiculous degree, yet no one ever seems to challenge or question the authenticity of what they’re being told. And all the stories, most told second- or third-hand, expose the failings and foibles and prejudices of the people telling them.

There’s some terrific and truly memorable short stories here. In particular, almost two months after having read this book, I’m still thinking about the city couple who have their heart set on buying a farm only to find the farmer doesn’t want to sell it to them. They way in which they resolve this situation is truly shocking — to say the least — and left me feeling slightly ill at ease.

Microcosm of Australian society

The book’s strength lies in the way in which it shines a light on modern Australia, where everybody should be happy, but no one seems content. Or, as one character puts it, “everyone’s so bloody negative; they can’t see what they’ve got ’cause they think they’re entitled to more”.

Look at us, Ad, said Leon, without looking at him: a bunch of well-off, well-educated fucks, the generation in charge, and yet we don’t know shit. We went to uni, and it didn’t cost us a cent. We found jobs, made careers. We’ve lived off the fat. We saw the world, conquered every corner of it, but what did we ever do but stare at ourselves?  […] We could have done something, left a legacy. But what did we do? Talked crap, argued, bickered, ate, drank — we’re always eating and drinking, stuffing our faces, telling everyone what we had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s obscene. We’ve let the world go to the dogs, Adam.

And so the weekend getaway that is depicted here — with its focus on food and wine and fanciful fireside tales — is a (cleverly written) microcosm of Australian society.

But (the appropriately named) Demons is not so much a novel but a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel and you either like that kind of format or you don’t. Admittedly, I’m not a fan, and while I admire Macauley’s silky and immediate prose style, his masterful way with dialogue and his clever expose on pertinent Australian issues — land rights, refugees, the dream of owning the quarter-acre block, 21 years of economic growth et al — I felt the book was weakened by the format. In other words, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. You may beg to differ.

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10 thoughts on “‘Demons’ by Wayne Macauley

  1. Canterbury Tales for the modern age and for Australian society? I’m not a huge fan of that format either, but perhaps it works better than a random collection of short stories?

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    • I think that’s a fair point — I’m not sure the book would have worked as a random collection of short stories. At least the current structure offers a unifying thread in the form of a group of friends sharing stories.

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    • I’m a Chuck Palahniuk fan, but not read Haunted… I think I have a copy somewhere, but didn’t realise it was a “short story collection”. And yes, do add The Cook to your list — it’s a really great satire on the whole foodie industry.

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  2. I’m not a short story enthusiast, so this one didn’t quite work for me either. Everybody seems to be doing short stories these days, as if the market has decided that readers don’t have the commitment to read a novel any more, and this one is a sort of two-bob-each-way.
    But yes, Macauley is spot on about how Australia is such a fortunate society and yet so many people are always discontented…

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    • There’s certainly a lot of short story collections around and I have grown to quite like them (they’re often perfect for commuting — one story on the ride in, another on the ride home) but when I buy/borrow a book I want to know it’s a short story collection, I don’t want to be (falsely) told it’s a novel. It feels like misleading advertising to me.

      And don’t get me started about Australians who don’t know how good they’ve got it 😉 It was quite an eye-opener last time I went home. I wanted to shake everyone and tell them to come live in “austerity Britain” for a bit, then they’d realise they had absolutely nothing to complain about.

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  3. Yes, I completely agree with you. I’ve just finished this and found it disappointing in comparison to The Cook. I quite liked the same farm story as you and I also thought the hospital one was interesting, but overall it just didn’t work.

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    • I liked the hospital story too (as far fetched as it sounded) but overall this collection (I refuse to call it a novel) felt a bit patched together.

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  4. Pingback: ‘Merciless Gods’ by Christos Tsiolkas | Reading Matters

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