by Ronnie Scott
Published February 2023
While I was writing this review, I retreated to my parents’ house for the weekend. I had called it a ‘two-day suburban residency’ to avoid the singular embarrassment of working from my parents’ house as a grown adult, but as soon as I’d arrived, things started happening. First, there was a blackout. And then a pipe in the bathroom burst – no doubt burdened, as are we all, by the weight of existence – sending a geyser of water spilling over warm tiles. Suddenly we had no electricity and everything was wet. This would have been ideal on a yacht, but unfortunately my parents live in a house.
If I’m being honest, something had felt off keel all day, which, because I am melodramatic, I had already internalised as a harbinger of the apocalypse. There were the classic omens: doomy forecasts, distant thunderclaps, our little dog yapping at the vague stench of stress in the air. But then there was the weird sheen the afternoon sun took on, like nothing else I have seen before. A plasticky glare – a blade between rainclouds – that cast everything in stagelight, so sharp and artificial that the house I had lived in for years now looked like a set. I had a preposterous vision of myself dying in this house, succumbing to the winds and prostrating myself beneath the alien glow in the sky, though this was probably because I had watched Melancholia the night before, which is a film no highly-strung person should ever experience.
When the blackout struck, we walked over to our neighbour’s place. Wow, we said to her, have you lost power as well? I wouldn’t know, she replied, in a voice I found inappropriately sing-song, considering the impending apocalypse. Then, justifying herself: I have solar panels! But as she said this, she, too, was shrouded in darkness. There was not a single lamp gleaming in the distance, no bassline hum of appliances. There was nothing. Stillness. I sensed she was lying about the solar panels.
We drove out to find dinner. Vehicles stalled on the main road – possibly because a traffic light had gone blank, but mostly because the queue to McDonald’s ran for hundreds of metres, a tortuous drive-thru line that had long discarded the agreed-upon rules of the battlefield we call the road. Horns pierced the blue-dark, mellifluous and symphonic. Just kidding. They were heinous, obviously, but there was something stirring in the din. There the world was, beyond the blackout cocoon: the terrible, predictable ugliness of the world.
A strange feeling came over me. It was as if we had, unknowingly, slipped through a wormhole and it was 2020 again. We abandoned our quest for food and returned to the house, which was still dark, still wet, still haunted.
Shirley, Ronnie Scott’s second novel, turns on those first few months of 2020, the rambling, orderless months before structure asserted itself and our feeds filled with infographics in lurid hues. The air is thick with bushfire smoke and shuddering despair, though no-one can quite pinpoint the source of the funk. Our thirty-something narrator, whose name is not Shirley, has sandpapered any trace of existential malaise to a glossy finish. Summer waxes and wanes; great personal upheavals come and go.
Writing from the future, rose-tinted and glassy-eyed, she thinks of all that has transpired over Melbourne’s six lockdowns, conjuring an image of middle-class serenity: a period spent ‘alone in the apartment with my laptop and my vegetable boxes, my cooking and the quiet and my personal routines’. She works from home in a corporate gig whose prevailing trait is anonymity – copywriting for a health insurance firm. At the end of each day: ‘I smoke a single menthol. I drink something, mostly wine.’ If you squint, Shirley might read like a diary from Refinery29 or Repeller or any number of millennial publications that invite gleeful voyeurism into the lifestyles of the rich and fameless.
Lifestyle: there’s a word that reverberates through Shirley’s winding, winking prose, which captures, in devastating detail, the practices of Melbourne’s inner north. If we take lifestyle in its contemporary sense – the things we own, the delineations between the haves and have-nots – Shirley is, at least at first glance, a lifestyle novel. Among the haves are our narrator’s pregnant neighbour Frankie, who has transformed – gentrified – her humble Collingwood apartment into a display unit which radiates the pre-fab tastefulness of a real estate listing. Frankie, along with her live-in companion Alex – not a husband or a lover but a glorified sperm donor paid big bucks to sire Frankie’s offspring – drinks natural wine, eats upscale sandwiches, and owns a small empire manufacturing vegan condiments. ‘The modern vegan,’ Scott professes in a 2018 cookbook review for this publication, ‘is … associated with resourcefulness, sometimes with cool.’ Frankie goes to great lengths to maintain this dying image. She lures the narrator in with homemade martinis and facile compliments. But there’s an incurable distance to her demeanour, as if she’s an echo from an alternate universe. The first time we meet Frankie in her apartment, she truncates a discussion about getting high at a music festival:
‘Mm,’ Frankie said, and did a little shiver. ‘Sorry – I just love that word, “high”.’
It’s a circuit-breaker: a perfectly droll line of dialogue that interrupts an otherwise prosaic conversation. Frankie has it all, which is to say she has nothing. Even the suggestion of ecstasy – all definitions – is titillating, mouth-watering, offering a release from the insipid curation of Frankie’s lifestyle. She finds a natural foil in David, the have-not to her have. David is the narrator’s long-term boyfriend, though their relationship barely survives the first thirty pages of the novel; he works, in one of his myriad jobs, as a gopher in Frankie’s factory. He is a ‘derp’, says his friend; he is an adult man who uses words like ‘blankie’ and ‘schnooking’ and fosters an ageing cat called Meanie whom he is unable to take to the vet alone, for fear of what he might find there. In all his nebbish charm, the same charm that, say, an ageing cat wields, he is the inverse to Frankie, with her flinty wiles. David is indecisive, inept, and slippery. We might call him anti-lifestyle.
Slowly, Shirley also reveals itself as an anti-lifestyle text. For each sparkling marker of inner-city affluence, there is an equal and opposite undercurrent of dread edging the novel towards murkier territory. The clearest – but also least interesting – instance is the enigma which frames the book: an ostensibly antic affair regarding the narrator’s mother, once a well-regarded celebrity chef whose career was halted many years ago when she was photographed outside her house smeared in blood. Whose blood? What happened? ‘It is a tempting question, and I will never answer it,’ declares our narrator, though the mystery, as always, is much more salacious than the truth. The precise events of that night matter far less than the long shadow they cast over the present day: the house, whose name is Shirley, now lies empty and ghostly as it awaits its impending sale – an absence where a lifestyle should have been.
Like the house, Scott’s writing is defined by an uncanny hollowness; he leaves ravines where we could reasonably expect a path. His first novel The Adversary spends a long, febrile summer with a group of Adonises lounging by the pool. They drift about, trying – and failing – to hook up with each other in airless rooms, gossiping in strangers’ apartments. As in Shirley, nothing much happens – or rather, any inflection point becomes subsumed under a thick fog of ennui. A review in The Saturday Paper described The Adversary as an exercise in ‘cockteasing’; Shirley exhibits the same tendency to introduce a narrative provocation before immediately plunging into bathos. After the caretaker of her mother’s estate wrongly accuses the narrator of stealing a valuable artefact, for example:
Eventually, the next day, even, I worked out what had been taken, and why it had been taken, and even who had it, and I could see why the Gerald might have thought it was me; perhaps its being gone would disrupt the house’s settlement, but I had no stake in such an outcome. And, anyway, it didn’t.
The elasticated tension of the first sentence – a whodunnit in miniature – followed by the cool splash of the second. ‘It didn’t’: a flick of the wrist, an eye-rolling dismissal, the question clipped. Passages like these recur across the novel, each time like whiplash as we are jolted from apprehension to anticlimax. We begin to doubt what is meaningful and what is merely a corollary to the narrator’s paranoia, lodged deep within her from that paparazzi shot all those years ago.
Reading Shirley, I’m reminded of that subset of contemporary fiction that deals in self-delusion. Ottessa Moshfegh, of course, provides an urtext: her cruel, Waspy narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation thinks an extended sleep – aided by a cocktail of pills – might cure the vexatious stimulations of the world outside. In Halle Butler’s scabrous 2019 novel The New Me, a temp worker allows herself the fantasy that she might be promoted to permanent employment, indulging in the clichéd trappings of stability: expensive yoga classes, a wardrobe makeover, long walks in the park. A similar pattern emerges in Paul Dalla Rosa’s short stories, notably in ‘Comme’, where a neurotic store manager approaching gay death – that is, his thirties – spends thousands of dollars on a shirt in an attempt to prove his worth to an uncaring audience. Each of these books can be read as an anti-lifestyle manifesto; each character grasps for lifestyle change as a salve. Inner turmoil, they hope, can be quelled by a shift in how they present (or, in Moshfegh’s case, stop presenting) to the world. But lifestyle is a trap. The desire goes unfulfilled: the permanent job doesn’t materialise; the shirt is ill-fitting. Only Moshfegh’s narrator emerges with any semblance of gratification. By stripping herself of worldly attachments like a beautiful, waify Buddha, she ascends to a state of new-agey delirium. ‘Things were just things,’ she proselytises, wide-eyed, after a months-long slumber.
Scott shares with these authors a narrative touch that makes a once-alluring lifestyle suddenly appear grotesque. Shirley’s narrator clings to her comfortable existence as her relationships – with David, with Frankie, with her sole colleague at the health firm – fray, and the world lurches towards new and treacherous rhythms. She wants to be the kind of person who is unbothered and self-assured – ‘like Teflon’, she says. But it’s a flattening desire: a bloodless escape from the bloodied photograph of her mother.
Within the hermetic confines of her apartment block, where most of Shirley takes place, she can retreat into her domestic order and her work – which, like any other bullshit job, involves predominantly sending and receiving emails. Save for a handful of excursions outside of her immediate surroundings – to the vet, to a musical festival – the narrator is largely immobile. She recites recipes throughout the novel, Heartburn-style, but they eventually blur into one lumpy morass of passata, eggplant, tofu, beans. Even Scott’s geographical fidelity – faithfully documenting the names of each road the narrator traverses, each establishment she eyes off, like a hip travel guide to Melbourne – starts to sound exquisitely deranged. The words ‘Hoddle Street’ are repeated so often they reach semantic satiation. Like every other lifestyle signifier in Shirley, they lose all meaning.
The walls close in – figuratively, and then literally too. Everyone scuttles indoors. Peril thrums in the air. At last, lockdown casts its plasticky glare over the proceedings, over the artifice of the narrator’s life. ‘A constrained life –’ she thinks, ‘a constrained life described my whole world.’
Halle Butler, The New Me, Penguin, 2019.
Peter Craven, ‘Ronnie Scott, The Adversary’, The Saturday Paper, May 2020.
Paul Dalla Rosa, ‘Comme’, Granta, no. 144, August 2018.
Nora Ephron, Heartburn, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Penguin, 2018.
Ronnie Scott, ‘Cookbooks of the Damned’, Sydney Review of Books, November 2018.