by Ronnie Scott
Hamish Hamilton / Penguin Books
Published April 2020
Ronnie Scott’s novel The Adversary is a peppy comedy about a reclusive young man. The unnamed narrator folds readers into his sparse Brunswick house, fruitless Grindr meetups and ever-draining bank account. The house is shared with Dan, a university classmate turned hook-up turned housemate turned best friend turned saviour. Clueless gays are schooled on PREP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), outdated HIV stigma and potential definitions of the word capacious. At the core of the novel is a tale of friendship and the conviction that friendship might have the power to tilt an individual’s life compass.
In The Adversary, there are in fact many adversaries. There is the narrator lazily challenging himself out of his shell and out of his habit of compulsive showering. There is also Chris L, a seemingly hipper friend of a friend whose Instagram profile provides the protagonist with hearty amusement (Chris L has a proclivity for shawls, capes and dark sunglasses). At some point we realise that the delight that the protagonist finds in mocking Chris L is the knee-jerk of insecurity. There is also Chris L’s casual boyfriend, Vivian. An older American (or not?) who wears linen and whose cartoon dialogue contradicts the very much cultivated banter between the protagonist and Dan. In the vein of workshopping, other adversaries could be Lachlan (Dan’s boyfriend), the sun, Fitzroy swimming pool and just generally anything outside the confines of the house.
The reader is introduced to the narrator as he ponders advice and a gym membership gifted to him by Dan. During this contemplation we are presented with his unease about public spaces and the people in them. But that unease is not absolute. He does try to run into university acquaintances by timing his visits to the local shopping mall, Barkly Square:
I was definitely not a shut-in. I had this thought all the time. I was just a guy standing in front of a door and almost never opening it, because I’d finished my assignments, and swot vac, and exam block, and also because my youth allowance was at its most effective in funding a life spent quietly indoors.
Brunswick is a character in this story too. It is a sanctuary cut off from the rest of Melbourne by awkward North-South tram lines and robust roads that slice through parks where regular folk jog. It is the shabbier and younger cousin of previously gentrified hotspots like Fitzroy and Richmond. Another of the main character’s adversaries lives there. He is referred to quite simply as ‘Richmond Man’, and the obvious connotations of bog people forever entombed in their domesticity becomes a well-oiled gag between the friends. Richmond Man came to the narrator via a ping on Grindr. All Richmond Man text messages are punctuated with a semi-colon and closed bracket smiley face. There are a few stroppy excursions between the two where the narrator forces himself (or is in fact forced) to interact with the hapless, gym-going Grindr pal.
Coincidentally, and because Melbourne is really just a big town, Vivian lives right across the busy road from Richmond Man. He appears to the narrator in the window of a much cuter building after a futile hook-up. Fuelled by his crush on Vivian, one that developed after having previously encountering him at a party and at Fitzroy swimming pool, the narrator invites himself up to Vivian’s place where again, nothing substantial happens. We do, however, get the sense that the proximity of the homes of these two acquaintances, who both intrigue the narrator, will summon a prickly moment.
The reader isn’t told much about the narrator’s back-life except that prior to taking up residence in the Brunswick house he lived with his family in a beachside town. He lazily blames them for his dislike of ‘bodies and mouths’. And they dislike Dan who refers to them as ‘the wealthy industrialists’. We are told a lot about Dan though: that he abandoned a date because his suitor referred to Australian marriage equality as ‘our yes vote’. That he does not shop at ‘evil Coles or also-evil Woolworths’. That he was coming to terms with being in a monogamous relationship with Lachlan. And most importantly we learn that Dan genuinely cares about his ex-hook up come housemate who, the reader could be forgiven for assuming, still carries a torch for Dan. Not like a charming lantern or anything, just an iPhone torch:
What would me and Dan be now, without the shared address? He wasn’t like a normal friend. He was something different. Would I even have this friendship without the symptoms of it? If it was undetectable, what even was it?
On the night before New Year’s Eve, the two couples: Dan and Lachlan, and Chris L and Vivian, accompanied by the fifth wheel narrator, journey to a beach house where they take drugs in a benign kind of way. In keeping up with his kookiness, the narrator comes onto Vivian and ends up covering him in blood.
Once separated, and back in Melbourne, a trail of obscure phone calls and guesses leads the narrator to Vivian’s den where he holds himself hostage for some days convalescing his crush. Nothing sexy. Just a bizarre cohabitation dance because the thought of going home to Brunswick is daunting or non-existent. Dan arrives to help, in a way, but also to drop the bombshell that he is moving out of the Brunswick house and in with Lachlan.
The Adversary is Ronnie Scott’s first novel, but his literary plaque is well engraved with his successes on the Australian scene. His longform essay Salad Days, published by Penguin in 2014, questioned our current obsession with food and how we eat. He founded The Lifted Brow journal and he is a lecturer in Creative Writing at RMIT. The novel is further proof that Scott is an impressive writer:
The last week before Christmas took place in some future world, where everything that mattered had been hurled into tomorrow and the now was an impediment to accessing this fortune.
His characters are men I have known, men with whom I have lived, hooked-up, been frustrated. They skirt around what they ought to say and try to reinvent themselves and downplay their opportunities and make geographical excuses for their oddities. Outlanders who have ventured inwards for studies and zest. I lived in Melbourne for a good chunk of time a few minutes’ walk from Fitzroy pool and gym (of which I was a member) and can attest to the pervasiveness of such a type. The novel snapshots these young men, timestamps them in Australian fiction. Scott evokes their too-coolness, the chosen peculiarities they flaunt in place of true street grit, such that you feel you are at the party, rolling your eyes at them from behind a sweating pot of beer.
I am reminded of another book whose gay protagonist traverses Melbourne to thaw out his identity (albeit much more raucously) – Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded. Both books have a project of social enquiry which should come as no surprise because it is at the core of a great deal of Australian fiction (mine included). I think this stems from a wider identity crisis, one that is national, ancestral, suburban, political and most importantly, with regards to Loaded and The Adversary, queer. Scott maps a group of men who have been under-represented in popular Australian fiction, and, whether or not he set out to, has reinforced some tropes about their capricious nature. Tsiolkas also shed light on queer characters, but the protagonist of Loaded, Ari, was so charged by his migrant heritage, by the four corners of Melbourne and its people, that his inquiry covered remarkable ground and encompassed a range of personalities.
In the introduction to Cruising Utopia – The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), José Esteban Muñoz writes:
Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.
He goes on to discuss the present as a prison, and argues that we must not become complacent with the illusion of full-capacity pleasure of this moment. Muñoz’s work makes me think about the cockiness of gay culture, of the ‘queer’ label, of all labels. The branded parties and the fashion, the claim to drag that gay men have cushioned themselves in. How it might be problematic, overtly heteronormative, worrisome. It makes me think of the self-indulgence of the characters in The Adversary. Their witty cuteness and their token participation in collective politics. Of course I am not suggesting that every gay character in Australian fiction ought to be Jeanne d’Arc, and Scott has made an effort to tackle HIV stigma and PREP philosophy, but I do wonder if characters in Australian fiction are potentially a little comfortable, a little, dare I say it, privileged – with the exception of characters like Ari who, even with his reluctance to accept his homosexuality, are still striving for that unattainable raw queerness. How do we, as creators and participants in art and culture, rush toward that queer horizon and convince as many people as possible to join our motley caravan? Do we even have the gusto?
A possible answer is in small acts of self-revolution, self-revelation, honesty. Rawness. Recurring climax. Something I found myself yearning for from the characters in The Adversary. In his chapter titled ‘Ghosts of Public Sex’, Muñoz describes these acts as being a radical response to the policing of homosexuality during the AIDS crisis. Gay men publicised their erotic lives and in doing so reformatted and transformed abject homosexuality. Their motive, of course, was life and death. Something gay men in Brunswick have been lucky to not have to worry about in the same way for some time. We have participated in other battles, namely marriage equality in Australia, but we were bolstered by a wider reaching acceptance. The fight was stripped of sexual acts, commodified, made tolerable. There is a nice echo of progressive thinking in The Adversary in Dan’s critiques of marriage equality – but in the end a monogamous and homogenous force smokes his relationship with Lachlan into a cushy corner.
Dan once peered at me over a glass of wine and said, ‘All I want in this world is the satisfaction of knowing that we got the right to marry and then not even using it, because marriage sucks.’
The first-person narration of the novel plays out as a meticulous catalogue of the narrator’s thoughts. It is unabashed, calculated and refined. The reader takes things in the way the narrator has thought them. We get the sense that he jumps to conclusions and traverses his metropolitan life as though there were a science to even the most minute of happenings.
Inside the kitchen cupboard was a wall of folded towels – bath towels, face washers, handtowels, and, of course, the dressing gowns modelled by Dan and Lachlan, my favourite couple; two rows of these dressing gowns occupied the bottom level of this floor-to-ceiling pantry. Each one of these things was the same deep green colour, luxurious and uniform and thick, thick, thick.
I turned around. They watched neutrally. ‘What does it mean?’ I asked.
‘It’s not really a mystery,’ said Lachlan. ‘The people who own this apartment run a towel supply company.’
The jaded narrator makes assumptions in his catalogue that bring to light his naivety – in contrast to his full-bodied wit and propensity for calculation. He misjudges Vivian as being a Melbournian returning home for the summer from his adopted life in the US when in fact Vivian is an American tourist. In doing so he paints Vivian as a caricature, as a shallow opportunist. The same treatment is bestowed upon Chris L and Lachlan (never Dan). Unsurprisingly the assumptions are more telling of his own somewhat vibe-deficient nature than that of the other’s. I just kept wondering: what made him this way? Why was everything about him so postponed? Not that it is right or wrong to be any type of way, but in offering him my ear I expected to know why he was telling his story.
In the conclusion to Cruising Utopia, Muñoz writes, ‘We need to engage in a collective temporal distortion. We need to step out of the rigid conceptualization that is a straight present… Willingly we let ourselves feel queerness’s pull, knowing it as something else that we can feel, that we must feel. We must take ecstasy.’ He is urging us to deform our stagnancy in a strive for the next phase of queer futurity, to cruise beyond our boundaries. Take ecstasy they do, the characters in The Adversary, but perhaps there is a hyper-consciousness in the act that adulterates any potential rapture. And perhaps that is an allegory for the too-aware protagonist who, in processing everything through the complicated spreadsheet of his mind, has diluted his ability to transform, react, release.