This article originally appeared in The Big Issue no 464. If you like what’s below, please consider purchasing a copy or donating to support the publication’s good work in supporting the homeless and long-term unemployed.
There’s a moment in every writer’s life where an idea they’ve been sitting on for a while crystallises, when ideas about form and function and social commentary finally – and it can really be finally – coalesce into something that can become, with some hard work, a novel. For Wayne Macauley, that moment happened quietly, on an afternoon that could have been any other, with a realisation that it was his generation sitting in Parliament House.
“It struck me one day some years ago, that they were the same age as me. It was quite stunning. And I realised that this generation, my generation, is now the generation in charge. It’s a big driver of what I was interested in about that age group.”
The main group of characters in Macauley’s new novel, Demons, fit in that age group – that mid-forties to early-fifties age bracket into which most of our political, community and business leaders fit into. One of the characters has recently been elected into politics. So the parallel between the title of Macauley’s new work and the Dostoevsky novel of the same name is significant, and utterly intentional.
“That book was dealing with a different generation, but he was asking the question about these guys who were potentially revolutionaries and what was the flaw in them that turned them from potential revolutionaries to violent revolutionaries; to terrorists, essentially. But equally, and as importantly, I’m asking is there a demon in the human mind that also creates, from ideals, complacency, and shallowness, and self-interest.
“I think the more prevalent demon, if you like, in the higher echelons of our society is this self-deception, or inauthenticity, or the ability to lie to oneself.”
Demons takes place just outside of Melbourne, where a group of middle-aged friends decide to slow down for a weekend, shut themselves off from humanity and just breathe the ocean air. No kids, no pets, no devices – just a few friends, a house on the beach, and stories.
Each of the characters sets out to tell a story, and while each story is about a different as it can be, self-deception is a recurring theme. A couple who will do anything – absolutely anything – to fill the void left by the passing of their sick child. A story about an eternal student, forty-something and still smoking weed and funding adaptations of Chekhov’s more political works with the proceeds of his divorce. A politician who has to give up his pet cause – land rights – or else kiss his career goodbye.
In between the stories there is domesticity, a closing off of the world. A huge storm cuts off their little house by the beach and makes even a quick trip to the shops impossible. It’s intentional – the great theatrical tradition of closing people off in a room together and seeing what happens. So they’re left, old friends swapping stories and arguing ideologies, trying to figure out what difference they’ve made to the world they live in.
One character asks, in the aftermath of telling a story that her companions have dismissed as untrue, ‘I wonder if stories can change how things are in the world or if they’re just us telling others what we think the world looks like?’ It’s a loaded question – one character immediately answers in the affirmative, another with a vehement negative. But it’s about more than just ideologies – Megan is a documentary filmmaker, filming Aboriginal elders in the Centre telling their own stories. The others come from idealistic backgrounds too – musicians, journalists, advocacy lawyers. “She’s asking a genuine question, as someone in her middle age, what am I doing and what have I done. They all are.”
In some ways, the answer is no – stories don’t change the world. Megan’s story is unanimously decided to be untrue, and Leon’s career as a journalist ended with him languishing in the opinion columns, writing pieces that it turns out nobody was reading.
There’s another character, barely present, who offers another view on the efficacy of stories in changing the status quo. Extenuating circumstances propel one character to bring his teenaged daughter along, and for much of the novel it seems an inconsequential detail. Tilly is there, in the house, toting her phone with her wherever she goes. Connected, but not connecting, and the difference is striking.
Macauley seems content to leave the answer to that question up to the reader. “At the end of the day I’m just a social commentator. Not even that, I’m just a teller of stories.” But stories have an effect beyond the writing on the page.
If this book were to be summed up in two words, they’d be truth, and stories. Do stories change the world? Does it matter if they’re true? The stories that we tell ourselves and others, that reflect the world as we see it – can they change anything?
There’s a sense, for the reader, that a weekend of trading stories might not have made any difference – for the characters, or for themselves. But there’s hope there as well, that in arguing and understanding their ideologies the characters can better understand the world they live in, and the effect they can have on it.