Roddy Parr by Peter Rose
Harper Collins, $38.99
When I read the description of Nanette Anthem being "in a state of vinous nullity", I thought, "oh ho, so this is where we're going with this - it's a send-up of literary luvviness."
It's understandable, I suppose. Peter Rose is the editor of the Australian Book Review, and as such is well acquainted with the world of books and authors. Roddy Parr is something of a roman a clef, in which real people appear with invented names. So, with little access to or knowledge of Australian literary circles, one must assume that the unspeakable Julia Collis, the unbelievable David Anthem and his brother Philip, a former prime minister, and elderly reviewer Raymond Bradshaw, are based on characters in this milieu.
In some cases the names are not even changed, with references to Styron (William, presumably, author of Sophie's Choice), Henry James, and a man called Aschenbach, the same name as the Death In Venice character. Patrick White appears as himself, as a friend of the fictional Mr Parr.
Ms Collis appears early in the piece, with no explanation of who she is and how she seems to have such influence over Roddy. The explanation of her role in Roddy's life comes several pages later, an irritating but all-too-frequent blunder.
It seems as though we should have prior knowledge of the first novel in what is threatening to become an Anthem family trilogy and should have already read A Case Of Knives, so Collis would be familiar to us.
As should Roddy. He apparently has just finished his doctoral thesis on David Anthem, a Nobel prize-winning author and, by happy accident, falls in with members of the Anthem family. Mr (Doctor, we find out much later) Anthem is looking for an amanuensis who might also be persuaded to write his biography and arrange his letters into some sort of publishable form. Roddy, to his delight, gets the job and also access to Anthem's daughter Cilla. The pair fall in love, of course, but betrayal, loss and redemption lie ahead.
Rose's overblown writing style is hilarious at times but generally tiresome. Roddy, a heavy smoker, describes cigarettes as "his soul mates, dying like butterflies". He learns the meaning of "important" words such as irony, sodomy and nihilism, as a youth in Ms Collis' household.
Roddy "doltishly fails to intuit" that David Anthem might write another novel. Cilla has "artful moles and comely legs". And so on. I imagine that Australia's literati might rush out to buy this book, to see if they recognise themselves. I'm not sure that the rest of the reading public will be quite so keen.
And Nanette Anthem was drunk.
Phoebe Falconer is a Herald writer.