by Max Easton
Part way through All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras’ documentary about the life, art, and activism of photographer Nan Goldin, it hits you: all of the people in Goldin’s photographs are famous. Over there, standing against a barroom counter, is Cookie Mueller, the author and actor who made her name in the gonzo works of John Waters. Uber-cool filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is looming in the background like a spectre. David Wojnarowicz, the author of the searing AIDS memoir Close to the Knives, is sheltering his eyes against the gloom. Even the blurred faces belong to artists, writers, and performers. Every mind documented has been turned towards art, and more than that, has succeeded, and found acclaim.
All The Beauty and the Bloodshed thus serves as more than just a document of Goldin herself. As an example of great art that captures the life of a coterie or milieu (what I’ll take to calling ‘scene art’), it belongs alongside Brad Gooch’s City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, a document of the petty squabbles and hook-ups of the New York School of poets; the writing of Eve Babitz, who drifted among powerbrokers with eyebrow firmly cocked; and Heather Lewis’ recent biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet, where Plath rubbed shoulders with Anne Sexton, under the spasmodic tutelage of Robert Lowell.
The pleasures of scene art are multi-faceted. There is, for a start, the simple warm glow that comes over every human being when they hear gossip – when faces and names get pinned to affairs, backstabs, cruel diary entries. None of us ever truly leave the halls of a high school, particularly not those of us who are artists, and scene art has the gory thrill of slander to it. Halfway through City Poet, Gooch descends into a seemingly non-stop string of descriptions of messy hook-ups – a reader is as likely to underline a sentence about who got with whom as they are to underline a particularly neat turn of phrase.
Scene art is also one of the rare sub-genres that is invested in truly describing a place. The New York of the New York School was not just a backdrop – it was intertwined with who these people were, what they wanted, and how they got it. In a recent interview, oddball documentarian Adam Curtis bemoaned that art had lost the desire to describe how it ‘feels to be living now’. Scene art does this. It describes a people and its place; the comings and goings; the vibes. Freed from the shackles of narrative intrigue, scene art can soak up the minutiae of a place – the coffee that artist Joe Brainard swilled, and the brand of soft drink he loved (Pepsi), all lovingly catalogued by his friend, the poet Ron Padgett, in the scene book Joe.
But here one might notice that these works of scene art all chronicle cultural happenings that have been and gone. Is it the case that reading a book about a cultural scene is far more enjoyable than the day-to-day of actually being part of a cultural scene? Maybe. Maybe it was always more pleasant to be Goldin with the camera, or Gooch with the pen, many years later, than the people who lived the thing, without the remove provided by art and time.
Yet regardless of these questions of distance, modern scenes are, in a word, exhausting. If scenes were ever truly held together by creative cohesion and mutual appreciation, that is under threat. It’s not hard to see why. The other thing about the scenes of Goldin, O’Hara, and Babitz? People could afford rent. None of these artists was a millionaire. But to hear them talk about the way they ‘scraped by’ is to hear someone talk about having a roof over their head, comfortably, and the time and space to make their art. No matter if that roof was leaking. What matters is they did, in fact, have one.
Scenes now, particularly in Australia, are defined by an economic precarity that does not leave the same space for art as those artists of the past enjoyed. If you want to live in a major city – or even a minor one – you have to work not only a full-time job, but a well-paying full-time job. That requires time, energy. The days are fixed not towards creation but towards labour. Everyone’s working night shifts, or trying to retrain, or moving out because their rent just got raised again. The squalor of the buildings in Goldin’s photographs is apparent, but it’s stable squalor; squalor that didn’t cost the ruling share of one’s income.
How are you meant to host New York School-style parties, when you don’t know where you’ll be living next week? How can you sit, comfortably, alongside your peers, knowing that there are fewer sources of artistic support than ever, and that you are all, in a way, competitors?
This is not to be moribund, or to say that there are simply no parties; no meet-ups; no kicking against the pricks. There is a wellspring of creative and political activism in Australia. There is community one does not have to go far to find. It’s just a different kind of community – a more distracted one, its mind forced to fixate on the price of a two-bedroom sharehouse in the Inner West more than any mind ought to be. Lofty considerations and sweeping goals about the future are all well and good, but they won’t get you through the next RBA hike.
As a result of these pressures, there’s no longer any room to fail. Scenes get remembered for producing work like Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, or Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, but underneath those magna opera is a whirling collection of failures and false starts. When every inch of your mind, body, and yes, soul, is turned towards the next rent cheque, any act of creation you manage to snatch from the jaws of labour has to pay off. These forays need to be successes, or they at least need to open the door for the next success – lateral moves or non-starters are a sort of death.
Which is why, the silent spectre that runs through Australian cultural scenes – as, in fact, it does through any matter in Australia – is the issue of class. If you’re going to make it, or have made it, chances are your parents are connected, or at least, have the capital to nurture you. And that’s not just true of twenty-year-olds, as it once was, back when you only needed to survive off your parents for a few years after leaving home. It’s now true of thirty-year-olds, forty-year-olds, people who, if they were born in an earlier generation, could have found themselves leaning on a counter at Frank O’Hara’s flat, given the breathing room to airily discuss the new developments in rococo, but are instead applying for hospitality jobs at IKEA.
It is an issue of focus-pulling: precarity breeds hypervigilance. You can’t just settle back into your rented apartment the way you once could, assured that you’d never pay more for your meagre walls. If the wolves aren’t at the door now, you know in a post-COVID world that they could arrive at any minute. The scene has not died, and it will never die, but it has been forced to draw its eyes closer to the ground, to the step ahead, and the next shift at the terrible job that will at least buy life, even if it doesn’t actually buy time.
This is the kind of scene, and collective exhaustion, documented in Max Easton’s Paradise Estate. Though his book is a work of fiction, Easton borrows many of the hallmarks of scene art: a hyperfixation on detail, a fluctuating cast of characters, lengthy descriptions of place. And yet, Paradise Estate is a scene novel that describes a community in the process of falling apart. Or, perhaps, one that might never have really been together in the first place.
Indeed, in the rearview mirror of my mind, what stands out in Easton’s novel is not the plot per se, but the asides: the snatched moments of desperation; the ever-accumulating wash of painful details. Two activists argue about Putin. ‘You’re young,’ one says. ‘I’m thirty-four,’ the other says. The first corrects himself, ‘okay, so you’re idealistic.’ People say things to each other like, ‘keep your sources safe’, borrowing a portentousness that their lives firmly do not possess.
The story itself is enjoyably bare-bones: the novel follows the life of Helen, a young woman attempting to process a recent breakup, all while settling into the apartment block of the book’s title. Helen is the character Easton returns to, but his gaze flicks to those around her just as often – an assortment of scientists, Twitch streamers, and sportsmen.
None of these characters has an arc, exactly. And deliberately so. There is no arc to be given to a human being who is being tossed around from dead-end job to dead-end job, as it goes for the novel’s Beth, or a human being who is being forced, desperately, to try and make a dream career work when he knows it won’t, as it goes for Rocco, a wannabe rugby player. An arc is a question of forward momentum, and Easton’s heroes are constantly finding themselves walking backwards, or worse, trapped horrendously in the minutiae of the now.
Helen has much to process – a lot of it covered in Easton’s prior novel The Magpie Wing, to which Paradise Estate is a sort-of sequel. But hers is not a journey marked by grand moments of catharsis or existential musing. She’s got other shit to think about – namely, her passive-aggressive neighbour, clearing street gutters, looking for ‘approval like a martyr’. Or the state of her bathroom, which prompts her to reflect on her ‘longstanding opinion that moulds and biofilms couldn’t be as hazardous as they were said to be’.
Her gaze, and our gaze as readers, is constantly being forced into a deluge of tiny details, symptomatic of the agonising, terminal work of modern life. Indeed, Paradise Estate is populated by thinkers and doers, but the real meat of the novel – its motivating action – isn’t creation. It’s exhausting in-fights, terrible parties, bad trips, days spent over the photocopier to churn out another zine that won’t be appreciated. When characters talk about ‘open-minded’ and ‘collectively-minded’ spaces, we realise immediately that they’re using fancy words for sharehouse chore wheels, rather than managing sites of fierce political activism.
Locked into the sad trudge of working for rent, characters are forced into a sort of small-minded squabbling, their arguments about how to divide up a house’s ‘social interests’ reflecting a culture forced to walk smaller and smaller circles around itself.
Indeed, the political thrust of Paradise Estate is thus: these activists, with their lofty goals and dreams, who are forced to abandon their dreams in order to work out the ‘internal logic’ of a crumbling sharehouse, evince a more socially pervasive sense of permanent distraction. Of course, a scene is going to be less expansive in its ambitions when the culture it sits within has no meaningful, cohesive goals – when political debates are sidetracked by minor concerns; when issues are constantly negated and then re-affirmed in endless loops by the diverse interests of opposing parties.
These activists have been swept up, hopelessly, into the culture that they are trying to rebel against. They have been forced to want less; consider less; give up on more. In the novel’s opening, as the main characters move into the apartment complex, there is a brief moment of possibility. ‘There are so many options for how we do this,’ says Alice, one of Paradise Estate’s new residents. But within pages it is gone, replaced by a disastrous sense of inevitability, and a party where all the attendees are arguing about ‘sex negativity’, before they look away from each other, and stare at the floor.
Anyone who has found themselves at a gathering, trapped in a conversation with someone who has just finished their first reading of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, will register an uncomfortable twinge, as though Paradise Estate were a pair of nail clippers slicing too close to the quick. Everybody’s trying, but nobody’s doing anything. Everyone’s talking, but nothing is getting said. Characters assemble to discuss bands that are ‘gratingly treble-heavy’ and shakshuka that ‘tastes like 2010’, to conduct pointless fights about socialism, children, and house rules that aren’t house rules, but instead, ‘guiding visions’.
Or, to put it this way, Paradise Estate is frequently very funny, but I never laughed. There are certain thoroughly ordinary disasters – getting slightly too harsh feedback from a university tutor, as happens to Beth in flashback — that, having been lived through, will always make your gaze go blank, your mouth slapped into a rictus grin. You can’t find the humour in something that swamps you entirely, that you haven’t poked your head out of yet.
Or at least, I can’t. I read Paradise Estate shortly after having moved into an apartment complex with a weekly rent that I couldn’t afford, across from a highway and a Red Rooster. In between chapters, freelance work drying up, I applied for call centre jobs. I received passive-aggressive notes from my neighbours about tying the knots properly in bin bags. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I was in the best possible place to read Paradise Estate, which is to say I was in the worst possible place.
Yet this too is one of Paradise Estate’s many bold pleasures – it is a book that is utterly unafraid to talk about the now, and more than that, the Australian now. So often, artists fear the notion of becoming ‘dated’ or ‘niche’, stripping their works of particularities in order to guarantee more readers, and let’s face it, more sales. This is particularly true in Australia, with its small market of book-buyers: the path to success is the interest of Americans, which might explain why so many contemporary Australian novels seem set in a sort of nowhere place, all the slang and cultural specificity wrung out.
But there is no mistaking where Paradise Estate is. Easton floods the pages with street and place names and suburbs – Marrickville Road, Hurlstone Park, the Crystal Palace Hotel — again, with the thrillingly mechanical eye for detail that you’d expect from a biography, not a work of fiction. It is a way of documenting the great deluge of information that we are all mired in, the constant material conditions that we might attempt to dream against, but can never properly escape.
In fact, aside from scene art, the other genre that Paradise Estate calls to mind is horror. The book has the terrible lurch of a work of violence, even though there’s actually no bloodshed in it – Paradise Estate is haunted in ways not dissimilar to Shirley Jackson’s Hill House. The noise of an actual ghost might be preferable to what the estate, with its ever-diminishing sense of promise, is truly echoing with – the rattle of what Fisher described as the ‘slow cancellation of the future’.
And the characters know it, too. Paradise Estate particularly stings in its suffocating air of self-awareness. Anything cruel you want to think about the characters, they’ll likely have already thought about themselves. Their next disappointments are on their mind, perfectly formed, before they’ve even happened. They know they’re wankers. They know that all this talk is getting them nowhere. But what else is there to do?
Easton’s novel is not entirely without hope. It is not a blunt instrument for despair, and, importantly, he never reduces his characters to their worst impulses. Everybody gets a moment of vulnerability. There is sensitivity here, even interspersed within the most pointed of comic jabs. Helen, in particular, has a crumpled sort of pain about her – a tenderness that she herself seems to want to avoid, but sits full alongside her flat affect. Easton is not a god, throwing his little playthings into hardship. He is at eye level with them.
The sort of hope in Paradise Estate, however, is a particular kind. It is what the poet Nadezhda Mandelstam termed ‘hope against hope’. You can do nothing else, so you decide to do this, fully, with your own self. You do not choose your own circumstances. But you choose the way that you commit to them.
His characters could, if they wanted, wallow. Instead, they play political make-believe, transforming their sharehouse into an ersatz commune, that, at the end of the day, will do nothing, achieve nothing, change nothing. Yet there’s some sort of heroism to that play, as much of a dead-end as it might be. It calls to mind Samuel Beckett: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’
Importantly, that hopeless hope doesn’t make the book any less sad. In fact, it does quite the opposite. There is a terrible sense of tragic inevitability to Paradise Estate – not in the grand style with its sudden reversals of fortune, but the tragedy that occurs when you are aware of things falling apart as they fall apart, when you can see others drowning, and are merely awaiting your turn to be dragged further out from shore. It is the minor tragedy of a scene that isn’t a hotbed of promise, but a collection of crabs in a bucket, pulling each other down and being pulled down in turn; of a scene novel that isn’t a catalogue of artistic successes and fancy parties ending in inspiration and ecstasy in equal measure, but an overflowing sharehouse bin of almosts that nobody, not a single person, can quite summon the energy to dispose of once and for all.