Review: Shaun Prescotton Wayne Macauley

Not The End: Some Tests by Wayne Macauley

By the fifth page of Wayne Macauley’s fifth novel, Some Tests, the title is already a kind of refrain. Or at least the words – some tests – recur and resonate with a vague, tuneful importance. By the novel’s middle section it becomes an ominous chant, like the phrase that punctuates a nauseating chorus. Protagonist Beth Own, a middle-aged nurse with two young daughters and an accountant husband hellbent on costly renovation, is instructed by her locum doctor to take ‘some tests’, and then ‘some more tests’, and then some ‘proper, rigorous tests’. And it seems that she will go on taking these tests, and learning of the need for even more tests, with scarcely the time to wonder what the tests are about or what they could mean. She can only suspect that there is something critically wrong with her. And although only a ‘lethargy and general unwellness’ has befallen her, it seems, sometimes, during her journey towards more and more tests, that she might even die.

Dying is the ultimate worst case scenario. But maybe it is preferable to having your life thrown permanently off course or, perhaps worse, appearing to be ill and being unable to work. In the twenty-first century, work and its spoils are central to the mortgaged middle class’s quest for meaning. Many divest their hopes for fulfilment from spirituality, only to shackle it to mortgages and loans and the vague hope that all this building towards something will pay off. Spirituality, god, church – these claim to promise payoffs after death. But a hard fought for renovated bedroom, in the house your bank actually owns, probably doesn’t. (Though who knows?)

That’s the world that Beth Own appears reluctantly to belong to – the aspirant urban middle class, the categorically ‘normal’ people who appear to mostly have what they need: their home, their children, their partner, their work. And yet nagging at the periphery is debt. Only work – and even more work – can sustain all of this. ‘We work hard but I’m not sure where it gets us,’ Beth says early in the book. Beth is uncertain. She’s ambivalent towards her husband and resents his renovations (they’ll push back her retirement). She feels increasing pressure from her boss. Her daughters go to both ‘before’ and ‘after’ care. Her life isn’t hers, she has no (O)wnership of her time or even herself. And yet, when she’s asked ‘what’s been happening in your world’, she has no meaningful response. She’s unhappy, but her unhappiness is of a mild and unstudied variety. ‘A lethargy and general unwellness’.

Death is too big and too inevitable to be a concern for Beth, though sickness is perhaps a worse fate anyway. When Beth sets out for some tests one day, never to return home until she’s arrived at a diagnosis, she scarcely wonders at first whether she might die. Eventually, by the novel’s second half, she seems to find some solace in being carried away from it all.

Some Tests is neither a didactic nor an angry book. It’s actually very funny. I’ve read Macauley described as a satirist, but that implies a coldness, a kind of clinical precision that is smart but heartless, almost misanthropic. Macauley is no misanthrope. To put it in a sweeping, clumsy way, Macauley is an empathetic writer who simply knows that this condition – our life, our predicaments – is weird, is rife with logical inconsistencies. Chief among these logical inconsistencies is the nature of happiness: how it is measured, how it is felt, how it is won.

A surface reading of Some Tests could easily point to satire: it’s a book that revels in repetition, simulates being seated at the grindstone, is concerned squarely with an ‘us’, right now. It describes impenetrable institutions, explicates meaninglessness. But beneath this veneer, beneath the possible reading that Some Tests is a rote critique of health institutions and middle-class monotony, there lingers something more alarming, more dreadful, more sad. Beth Own’s efforts to discover whether she might die mean she can’t go to work, but the pursuit of a diagnosis, in her world, is at first as forbidding a task as nursing the elderly during her day job:

she’d said it a few times lately – and not just to herself – how it can’t be good being around old people like that: all day, every day, dying.’

Death and sickness are disgusting, if they’re not glazed in grandeur. Beth’s pursuit of tests is not grand at first, it’s stupid and boring. It’s stupid and boring up until the meaning of her ‘tests’ shifts dramatically. Maybe death is so disgusting, so repulsive, that it can also, by some opposing measure, feel good, feel beautiful.

Macauley’s last novel, Demons, was a tale of six well-off middle-aged Melbournians retreating to a cliffside mansion in order to escape smartphones and exchange stories. It read like a panoramic diagnosis of moral and emotional emptinesses, even while its characters mostly wanted to prove – through their stories, and through the very act of telling their stories – that the opposite was true. It wasn’t thematically unusual for Macauley, although it did shed some of the absurdist elements on display in The Cook, until now his strangest work.

Or at least, it seemed to. The difference might simply have been that each of Demons’ characters told their own story. These distinct voices invited the reader to speculate that all the absurdities contained within were the fibs or embellishments of individuals, thus rendering the book as a whole less weird. Each was framed as a potentially unreliable reminisce. In Macauley’s other novels and especially his short stories, strange things happen but they’re not filtered by winks and nudges. Like Kafka’s work – a writer Macauley must surely adore – the reader isn’t invited to wonder ‘is this a dream sequence’ or ‘is this narrator unreliable’. The strangeness is simply the truth. That’s the most immediately intoxicating quality of most of his books, and it adds a potency to Macauley’s observations that more sober-eyed contemporary Australian novels with a critical eye on contemporary life very rarely equal. It’s possible that Australian novels are often dryly realistic because Australians, especially those who fit the category of Beth, are desperate to recognise themselves; desperate for proof that they do, collectively or as discrete communities, constitute an identity. That they are, in some fashion, specifically us, especially us. Macauley’s work usually takes a much broader approach.

Some Tests returns to this mode of narrative unreliability. The logical rifts in Some Tests are not explained and they rarely appear to surprise or confuse Macauley’s characters. The most alienating moments of Some Tests aren’t accompanied by some explanatory klaxon, they aren’t rendered in dream sequences or italics. They are a part of Macauley’s world which, in the end, is mostly the same as ours.

Macauley’s enduring fascination with urban negative space – the spaces we aloofly commute through, barely stop to notice – is maintained in Some Tests. These regions have played host to Macauley’s stories ever since his first novel, Blueprints for a Barbed Wire Canoe, which described a rogue community fashioning an awkward life from the ruins of a dezoned commuter belt suburb. In Some Tests, Beth Own is sent further and further away from her familiar Heatherdale home for tests: to Box Hill, Heidelberg, Epping, Meadow Heights, Gladstone Park, Wildwood, Clarkefield, and then to a proverbial woop woop.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Beth’s tests press ever outwards from her nice suburban home towards places like this: places that are the opposite of milestones. Her tests drag her through suburbs she’s never visited, and then onto the arterial roads she might not have ever registered, and then through the dull green and flat plains that buffer the greater city. Her tests occur in faceless bungalows, ugly roadside squat brick buildings, repurposed factory outlets, in all the places easily ignored, places not rewarded with the status of a destination. She takes bus routes known only by their cryptic numbers. She courses through the veins of a system, a giant one, a terrible one, one no one really understands.

Macauley’s novels are often fantastical or absurd in their logic, but the colours and settings seem deliberately banal – focusing as they do on the type of place under-studied in Australian literature. Macauley frames these exurban fringes from vantage points and under circumstances that expose how cold and labyrinthine our modern civilization can be; sheds light on how unhomely the city is when you’re on the wrong side of a picket fence. In Some Tests, the flat expanse of Melbourne exurbia is a purgatory that must be crossed. Not only is it traversed on buses, but it must also be touched, walked upon. Importantly, Macauley doesn’t resort to the patronising characterisation of suburbia as a kind of existential hell. Instead, he marvels at its baffling enormity. It’s a kind of vast desert. It’s an amusing frontier for a novel about departure — or escape.

This is demonstrated about a third of the way through Some Tests, when Beth journeys to consult a doctor in Epping for her third round of tests. This is where Dr Kolm is based. Beth has been sent to Kolm after objecting to the costs of her doctors thus far (though she’s entitled to some ever-elusive and eventually inconsequential rebates). Dr Kolm’s surgery is located in Dream Haven Court:

Dull streetlights and a waxing gibbous moon lit the way as Beth walked down Miller Road towards the smash repairs. After that, to the factories, it was mostly vacant land full of rocks and weeds and a footpath so overgrown there was only a thin strip left down the middle to walk on. When she finally got to Dream Haven Court and looked down it she figured they must have given it that name as a joke. Big factories, concrete yards, stacks of pallets, metal cages, rubbish skips, parked machinery–but nothing that looked like a doctor’s surgery.

There’s a loneliness verging on horror in this landscape, in the way it’s  contrasted with comparatively familiar and homely suburban environments that precede it. Dream Haven Court is the opposite of homely: one should only visit a place like this to work, or else watch it roll by through the tinted windows of cars or public transport. Places like this constitute vast swathes of our urban environments. And yet they are at the edge of many people’s lived experience and their concept of what a city is.

For a long time, this expanse of houses and buildings, factories and roads, is the most alienating aspect of Some Tests. Beth seems alarmingly ambivalent to it all – even when she’s forced to sleep the night at Dr Kolm’s residence. She’s also alarmingly ambivalent to the distance widening between herself and her house and her family. She does occasionally remember them, and her husband David does make an effort to retrieve her, but she presses on, because she’s just going for some tests after all, and this system of tests and results and doctors is something she has faith in. And it barely even matters, eventually, that the batteries in her phone have run out. She never makes an effort to charge it.

Within the exurban expanse Beth finds other people, the wandering lost also sent out for some tests. These lost constitute a small roaming community. The environments they wander aren’t unusual (they exist after all – you can even explore Dream Haven Court on Google Maps), but the way Macauley’s characters flit through them definitely is. With only a few exceptions we never meet these characters, but they have the air of the glassy-eyed and possessed. Meanwhile other characters, such as cafe owner Geoff, seem vaguely complicit in sending Beth onward in her journey for tests. It all seems sinister. Geoff declares:

Once called, we go, Beth; the warm bed you woke up sick in this morning has already gone cold and won’t have you back, not until you’ve taken the journey, done your tests.’

Beth is a ‘phase four’ patient, it turns out. She doesn’t know what that means, and neither do we. But she’s advised of her status with a sense of gravity, with a sense that it’s special. It doesn’t seem like a good thing, but nor does it seem an especially bad thing. It’s yet another obscure milestone in her journey.

Although Beth often ruminates on what she has left behind in her pursuit of tests – her family, her comfort and her job – by the novel’s second half she seems fated to her journey, maybe even dedicated to it. It’s all in pursuit of an answer after all, and potentially a firm one, concerning her fate alone. Her doctors never provide any speculative or firm diagnosis, but there’s the promise of an answer, or at least, the promise of something entirely else.

This chasing of tests and a diagnosis is grimly funny. Macauley plays his absurdities so painstakingly straight. But Beth is a sad enigma. Her confusion is familiar, but her submission to this spontaneous test odyssey is not. Or, maybe her submission is not so strange. By the novel’s end a reader will be immersed in the mood of the novel.

Macauley leaves his most hallucinatory moments for the closing chapters. They register as absurdities, but perhaps Beth Own’s striking numbness – her submission to these absurdities and her reactions to them – is not so strange after all. Though it ends rather definitively, the novel invites speculation regarding how unhappy Beth actually is, or how deep-rooted her ‘lethargy and general unwellness’ is. I believe Some Tests is about unhappiness – about terminal unhappiness, the variety of unhappiness that is barely detectable. A variety of unhappiness that is simply a symptom of  seeming dissatisfaction, of illusory freedom, of a permanent want for more. It may be true that no one is ‘happy’ – I sometimes suspect this is correct – but Beth’s variety is one that a great many people will likely identify with. She lives, she works, she rears, and she’ll likely end up in her place of work as she nears death: a nursing home.

Beth’s unhappiness is borne of want, yes, but not an extravagant kind – not the consumerist, aspirational kind often lambasted in modern novels. Beth’s life is like the edgelands she travels, a stretch between one milestone and the next, an expanse that is neither defined by its remoteness nor its closeness, by its happiness or unhappiness. Her life is thoroughly in-between. Her life is neither a noble struggle nor an orgy of excess. It’s just a keeping on, keeping on. Most of us live like this.

Late in the novel, Beth is visited by a parade of the deceased – whether real or imagined, it’s never perfectly clear – and there’s a sense of peace about this scene but also, soft admonishment. Even her intimate dead seem to understand that she is not by any measure ‘fine’, and their interrogations feel like the final test she’ll take. But there’s another way to approach Beth’s journey. Perhaps her being dogged onto more and more tests is the imposition of self-analysis – the likes of which one might otherwise sensibly avoid. Beth’s interminable quest for tests regarding her bodily health keep scratching away for some answer, an answer which – as more and more tests pass – can barely ever hope to be desirable.

Not all conditions, not all ‘general unwellness’ can be diagnosed in a useful manner – certainly not with medicine, doctors. Although Beth is never directly diagnosed as ‘mentally ill’, it’s easy enough for the reader to believe her doctors think she is. Is her ostensible illness a fault of hers, then, or is it the fault of her life, her lot, her times?

If this is the case, the way Macauley ends this novel can feel blunt. But it has to be. Some Tests does end at an extreme – both geographically and conceptually – but I’m grateful that it does. Nearing the end of her journey, Beth’s langour has lifted, but not in a manner that will seem inevitable to most readers as they accompany her through the clinics and highways and suburbs of greater Melbourne and then beyond. Her end needs to be emphatic. It needs to be an end. Some Tests is ultimately a strange novel, amusing and very often frightening. And also, potentially, instructive. In the words of an important figure late in the book:

I want to speak of resignation. The word has two meanings: let me first speak of the first. To resign, to quit, to give notice, an active verb, this is the meaning we are most familiar with. When I resigned from my position as lecturer in moral philosophy–a prestigious position, I must tell you–to protest against the dumbing-down of our universities, this was an active thing. I was taking action…

…But I want to argue that, no, we are resigning ourselves in the second, passive, sense. We are not saying: Here, look at me. We are saying: That’s it, I’ve had enough.’