Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Malcolm Knox: The Wonder Lover

If you saw the rather critically impoverished discussion about this new novel from Malcolm Knox on The Book Club on the ABC last Sunday (May 3) you would have seriously 'wondered' it was worth reading at all.

Look, it's not without its flaws. There are some real narrative and logic gaps, but these are minor in the scheme of things. The fact is this is a powerful and mighty achievement. It captures, engages and sucks the reader in. And it grapples with a whole range of large issues rarely done well in modern fiction.

Right from the start I loved this book. It is a rich and crowded tapestry of story and reflection, and a stimulating mix of the comic and the highly dramatic. Knox pulls off this difficult task superbly.

Essentially it's an essay on men, but also on women, on sex, on pain and suffering, on loneliness, ageing, beauty and love.

I don't think it's going too far to suggest that in a real sense it's a story of a man undone by strong and powerful women. It could be seen as a feminist tract - on the weakness of men and the power of women.

It reminded me very much of Howard Jacobson, especially his marvellous Zoo Time. It's a heady mix of the comic and the dramatic always infused with hyper real intensity. Jacobson in his Jewish style is a master of portraying males grappling with demanding, crazy women. But Knox brings far more compassion and warmth to his tale, and less social and political critique.

John Wonder keeps three wives on the go, each with two kids named Adam and Evie. They live in different countries, and he must of necessity keep well and truly on top of this complicated arrangement to keep it all secret. His job as a fact-checker for a Guinness Book of Records-type company means he has to constantly travel the world. It's not as if he cynically or lasciviously engineered this situation. He fell into it almost by accident. He's a weak character, always accommodating and wanting to do good, someone who feels obliged. 

The three wives are all very different and Knox brings them intensely alive. 

He also introduces two new characters who slowly add additional flavour to this already potent mix: the World's Oldest Woman who reaches the age of 130 before, to everyone's relief, gasping her last breath, and the World's Most Beautiful Woman, named Cicada, who John becomes seriously infatuated with.

Knox builds a lot of dramatic interest in Cicada, and their relationship. Initially I wondered about her place in the novel. She adds enormous sex appeal but what meaning? Maybe she's meant to be a complete 'other' to love and family: just lust and money, a typical male indulgence or fantasy. John is totally deluded about her. His Platonic ideal of beauty and his certainty that she is not the 'slut' that she claims to be, but an actress, is crazy. She's the town bike and her stories of her exploits are sizzling hot!

But delusion, cowardice and hypocrisy are John's key traits. His 'truth verifying' career is in complete contrast to the thoroughgoing dishonesty of his private life. 

Of course the whole charade inevitably comes apart at the end. It is a bit 'Carry On' movie in the hospital when the families meet! (This was a wrong note unfortunately, as was John's bawling after the old hag dies. The rapid gyrations between drama and comedy are occasionally off-putting, but this is a minor complaint).

There are some lovely concluding chapters. The six kids list their achievements and they are inspiring, but because of their father's frequent absences the refrain is  'Father, you saw none of this'. Likewise the wives's discussion as they assess their common predicament is just warm, forgiving and lovely.

What in the end makes this novel so magnificent is the evident power of Knox's breathtaking imagination. This is a major novel and deserves every success.

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