Shelf pity: ‘Rise & Shine’

By Andrew Fuhrmann
Patrick Allington’s fable of a world in which perpetual war is staged to fuel compassion is too straightforward for its ambitions

Patrick Allington’s Rise & Shine (Scribe) is a post-apocalyptic fable about the possibility of basing a new social and political order on our shared capacity to feel the pain of others. And it is, from start to finish, the most egregious flapdoodle. It’s the sort of book you read with furrowed brow and clenched jaw, shaking your head and resisting grimly.

On the first page, we’re told that the world has been ruined. How did it happen? Maybe it was war. Maybe it was global warming. Maybe it was pollution. Maybe it was something else. The details of how and why, the narrator assures us, hardly matter. What matters is that, in the midst of this toxic mess, two survivors, Barton and Walker, have worked a miracle of regeneration. They have created nothing less than a new civilisation and given hope to humanity. The flourishing city-state of Rise is ruled by Walker and the no-less-prosperous Shine is ruled by Barton. And life in these two proximate havens is very quiet and very snug.

The only thing they lack is food. The earth is too contaminated to sustain crops. Barton and Walker, however, have discovered a great secret: feelings of compassion can provide all the nourishment required by the human organism. Indeed, regular doses of that tender emotion, in Allington’s universe, can apparently prevent starvation indefinitely.

Barton and Walker ensure a steady supply of compassion by staging a perpetual fake war between Rise and Shine. In the wasteland that separates the two cities, small platoons run around shooting rubber bullets at each other while drones equipped with video cameras transmit images of every bump and scrape back to the cities, where the citizens feast their eyes.

But all is not well. After 40 years of life without food, the magic is at last beginning to wear off. A small but growing number of citizens – including Walker himself – are slowly starving to death. Pity doesn’t work for them anymore, or barely works. The people are growing restless and change is in the air. The end of the sympathocracy, it seems, is nigh.

The book is described by the publisher as a Kafkaesque fable, but, while there are things in Rise & Shine that are unexplained, such as how compassion is transformed into calories, there are no nagging ambiguities or profound heuristic difficulties in this book. Everything is as clear and accessible as a claw hammer in a wading pool.

Clear and accessible, however, does not mean swift and gripping. The story is chiefly told from Walker’s point of view. He wanders around his compound, grumbling and wheezing and behaving like anything but a charismatic leader. His main preoccupations are bickering with his subordinates and singing the praises of Barton, his opposite paragon in the city of Shine.

The book’s idiom is like a political melodrama, where everyone talks fast but says nothing:

“What are we going to do about Holland?” Barton asked.
“Now who’s all straight down to business? … He’s my problem, I’ll —”
“No, he’s our problem now. Does he need a few months off? Is he sick? Is he slowing down? Does he need to retire?”
“I’m looking into it. Now. As we speak.”
“And … I’m worried about him. Worried about what he’s up to.”
“As you should be.”

This tetchy back-and-forth blather goes on for pages. And nearly all the characters in this novel talk in the same bluntly passive-aggressive way and at the same length.

The flat and affectless tone has a distant familial resemblance to the work of North American fabulists such as Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, but with none of the quirkiness or comic ingenuity. In vain you will search the pages of Rise & Shine for witty juxtapositions, clever provocations, memorable slapstick or quality one-liners.

Perhaps the best scenes in Rise & Shine are those involving the interrogation of dissident horticulturists. The secret police are charmingly incompetent, and their attentiveness to the feelings of their prisoners render all attempts to extract information futile. These are the only moments in which Allington’s comedy of too-many-manners comes alive.

But for the most part the story just plods along. Whatever resonances this tale – about the healing power of compassion and the importance of being kind to yourself and to others – might have had in the context of today’s looming mental health crisis are muffled by the slackness of Allington’s satire and the humdrum banality of the future he has imagined.

The book is colourless to the point of vanishing. Nothing has any substance. The characters are wretched spectres, disembodied voices huffing and puffing and wittering on. And the world in which they move, when glimpsed at all, is represented by a shabby backcloth of catastrophe clichés. It’s the crudest and the drabbest sort of puppet show.

Allington is particularly myopic about the city of Rise, where most of the book is set. We see hardly anything at all of the world that Walker built. We do, however, learn that video screens are ubiquitous and that most buildings are a medley of old ruins and new plastic extensions. There’s also a large dome that extends over the city whenever it rains.

As a consequence of the thinness of the fictive covering, the novel’s ideas seem vulgarly exposed. Compassion as a prophylactic against starvation? It just doesn’t sit right. And nor does Allington’s sketch of the social and political organisation of Rise, where everyone knows they’re being lied to but they accept this as necessary for survival.

In one scene, Walker is watching an old dog stagger about, hoping that this pitiful sight will sustain him for the rest of the day:

With a whimper, the dog leapt into the air, performed a midair flip, and landed with a heavy thump on its side. It lay on the floor, panting, wagging its tail that was actually a leg. Hail stared at Walker, who ran his tongue around his teeth.

The dog has five legs because it was retrieved from the badlands beyond the city limits. But this whole novel, which is a shortish pulp fiction mutated out of its right proportion, is really just a parcel of awkward fifth legs, waggling ineffectually.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Read on

Image from First Cow

Milk it: ‘First Cow’

Kelly Reichardt’s restrained frontier film considers the uneasy problems of money and resources

Image of book cover of Summer by Ali Smith

The summer’s tale: On Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet

Addressing climate crisis and global pandemic, the concluding book in Ali Smith’s quartet reminds us that an ending is also a beginning

Image of shadow minister for agriculture and resources Joel Fitzgibbon during Question Time

Political maverick

Joel Fitzgibbon is starting to resemble Barnaby Joyce in his deliberate departure from the political mainstream

Image from Day in the Life by Karrabing Film Collective

MIFF 68 ½ at home

Films by Kelly Reichardt, Ulrike Ottinger, Ja’Tovia Gary and Djibril Diop Mambéty captivate, despite a radically different festival format