Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
February 2010, Australia
Reviewed by Sam Cooney.
I first encountered Clinton Caward’s writing last year in the lit journal Cutwater; his two short stories punched me in the gut with their corrosive and compelling strength, and the accompanying author interview struck some chords. (Indeed, I said so in a review.) And I found him again in Meanjin, in a differently styled but equally striking story. So I jumped at the opportunity to read and review his début novel, Love Machine.
Love Machine is a character-driven tale of life in Sydney’s suburb of vice, Kings Cross. It is narrated by Spencer, an underground sex shop employee, who is a strangely captivating protagonist. He seems to exist in some sort of transitory limbo from which he watches and evaluates his surroundings and the goings-on of his own small circles of existence. Like a classical impassive observer he endeavours to maintain his distance from the reader as well as from most of the characters; we are never told directly of his age, his motives (or lack of) behind the life he leads, or much about his background. Yet although he remains quite remote from most of the personalities strewn throughout the novel, he gradually reveals himself to readers by his thoughts and actions, until we feel a genuine affinity with him.
From flushed-pink cover to cover the book is crowded with characters – colourful and confidently rendered persons who flit in and out of the narrative. Take the half-dozen employees of the sex shop; they are a lesson in diversity. There’s Sam, a young and jumpy Nigerian student; gay male Sandra, a Bangladeshi gym-addict; Mr Ling, Chinese wanking booth cleaner and gambling addict; and the boss, angrily righteous Rocco. More gaudy characters pop up everywhere: at the strip-club haunts, in the suburbs, and even in a quick visit to Melbourne.
The sex sex sex that buttresses the book is equally vivid. Anyone who has visited a shop such as that where Spencer works will recognise it immediately. Caward writes skilfully, blending the grotesque and baroque nature of these supermarkets of sex, recreating on page that knife-edgedness, that off-kilter day-glo atmosphere that is common to these porn palaces the world over. And we hear plenty about the toys and blow-up dolls and disturbingly unusual DVDs, although it is the ‘wanking booths’ that are most fascinating, with their ‘protein stink of stale semen’. The spectrum of individuals that frequent these curtained-off cavities, the men who ‘brought in their bodies and tried to empty themselves of isolation in the booths’ – these ephemeral figures flick past the corner of the eye, intent on something that we can never quite see ourselves. Intriguing.
Sex scenes are similarly written, without panache or grandeur. Often they are simply physical: ‘Using the hand soap, she milked me like a barnyard animal in front of the mirror, looking very satisfied when I ejaculated onto the tiles.’ But there is feeling, and even tenderness; Spencer is far from indifferent, but he is calculating. Caward has fashioned a very remarkable character.
Love Machine’s blurb describes it as ‘a love story set in a sex shop’ and this is correct, but not in the way the publishers intend. They are referring to the attachment between Spencer and Livia, a sex worker who visits the shop one day, and with whom Spencer assembles a relationship of sorts. But Spencer and Livia’s intertwining pales in comparison to the love story between Spencer and Kings Cross. He harbours an affection that is slowly infecting, for Kings Cross is a partner that brings out both his best and his worst. But how could you not be attracted, even if it is like a moth to flame:
‘… nights were always soaked in gasoline and set on fire. The streets revved up with the overblown sound of motorcycles. Fleets of bursting buses ferried in the bucks’-night marauders in plastic Viking helmets to throw beer cans and abuse at whoever was on the footpath…The machine also pumped heat, through the sewers and passageways under the road, attracting the cold and the lonely.’
Love Machine is tawdry, but only realistically so. It gives voice to that ‘underground’ population – prostitutes, perverts, drug dealers and addicts. The only thing that isn’t flashy is the prose; plain descriptive passages allow speedy reading without offering titanic revelations. Caward has grabbed the oft-remote sordidness and fleshed it out, and it is seductive in its six-inch stilettos and smoky cavern eyes.
The novel is different from his smaller stories, and ultimately I found it not quite as satisfying, though I am sucker for the short form. Love Machine’s setting and characters do make it a worthy read. You’ll discover a newer, glitzier, meaner Kings Cross, and the little sex shop circus and its troupe of faces and bodies will stick in your mind like cheap lube.
Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. Having recently completed an undergraduate degree, he spends his days reading, writing and editing. You can find him in various hidey-holes about the internet.