A debut novel takes a deep dive into Australian culture, politics, geography, nature—and whatever else in world history that the author fancies.
The main character here is narrator Patrick Mynts, a British art gallery owner, who is in Australia on a government culture junket. He also happens to be the nephew of Australian Prime Minister Sir Dewy Popkiss, a fact that may give him access to Tray Beautous, a reclusive artist whose work he admires. Tray lives on Magnetic Island in North Queensland. At the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, Patrick encounters The Old Folks Home, one of Tray’s paintings, which features “a giant Tolga Melon like a green Zeppelin” (“Phallic symbolism at its freshest”). Crazy characters abound in the novel. Dewy is one, of course (“To the extent that he had political anger at all, Dew’s was focused on members of his own party, the only ones who could do him harm as an individual, rather than as the adherent of a particular, political faith”). And then there is his predecessor, Knut Fagan, and his dead wife, Brooklana, subject of a colossal statue made by Tray and subsequently destroyed (think Ozymandias). Other key characters include Sir Quntee Mush and his lovely wife, Arkana Muckadilla, the “Texans.” The plot concerns Dewy’s agreement with Patrick that he will be enriched if he can persuade Tray to paint Quntee and Arkana while they are in flagrante delicto, which supposedly will result in the violent death of both of them. Of course, only a rogue would reveal the outcome, which is as wacky as the rest of the tale.
Cummins’ ambitious work is not for everyone, although it does have its weird charms. Patrick has strong opinions on everything but especially on matters of politics and race, and he indulges in long rants that do nothing to advance the plot. In fact, given the absurd plot, it would be more accurate to describe the work as a long and varied polemic masquerading as a novel. It also might be called a political/cultural satire. But there is a problem: The author has little regard for American readers. A crucial term in the story is “Tim-Tam.” Google explains that Tim-Tam is a very popular Australian biscuit (cookie), but clearly it has a derogatory slang meaning—which the audience is never enlightened about. Most American readers will not know what the term means or what group of people constitutes the Tim-Tam. A glossary would be a welcome and simple fix. A similar case has to do with Quntee and Arkana. Are they really from Texas, or is that simply a snide Aussie reference, comparable to the way Yanks sometimes use “cowboy”? And Patrick doesn’t get to Magnetic Island, where there are truly bizarre goings-on, until the very end of the tale. But a sort of epilogue (L’Après-Midi d’un Prawn) that reads like a fever dream tops that for the fantastical. Still, there are readers who will enjoy giving themselves over to this sort of smorgasbord of a book, those who enjoy a good rant, love to try to puzzle things out, and will appreciate Cummins’ wit and obvious erudition. The wide-ranging story should especially appeal to avid museumgoers and fervent fans of the op-ed pages.
A clever but meandering political and cultural tale.