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Masculinity in crisis in ‘Off the Record’

By Shannon Burns
Craig Sherborne’s satire could be an ingenious portrait of deluded conceit

Callum Smith, aka “Words”, is an unscrupulous middle-aged crime reporter who has recently separated from his wife. Since their separation, he’s taken “a bracing cut in pay” to work for an online media company, with the hope of making his name and fortune. These major life changes, combined with the infidelity that led to the breakdown of his marriage, point to something like a classic midlife crisis.

Craig Sherborne – who once worked as a journalist and shares his protagonist’s initials – employs the first person past tense for the bulk of Off the Record (Text, $29.99), but Words occasionally breaks into the present to explain his philosophy of life. Early in the novel, he insists: “My reason for living is my wife and my son. They, Emma and Oliver, are my religion: without them I doubt I could make an attempt at goodness. But a reason to be good is far from being good.” We understand from this, and other attempts to justify bad behaviour, that Words might possess a redeemable soul, despite his tainted and “half-human” status.

Whenever Words exploits or deceives someone, he claims to do it for the right reason (“I was doing it for my family, it was worth the cruelty …”) and if he has developed “a dead glitter” in his eyes, he insists that it was acquired in the service of his religion. But these avowals of love and self-sacrifice become harder to entertain as the novel wears on. Words fails to recall the month of his wedding anniversary, and his true passion is on display when he tells his son’s teacher: “Ollie recently made me the proudest I have ever been as his father. I asked him what it was he wanted to do in life. You know what he said? He said, ‘I want to be like you.’”

If conventionally masculine men are expected to speak plainly and truthfully while abhorring sly manipulation and deception (contra Odysseus), then Words is far from masculine in the traditional sense. Readers are put on their guard from Off the Record’s opening pages, when he says: “I do not believe in honesty.” Later, Words tells us: “I have spent my working life not taking people’s word. In my world all talk consists of riddles. There is no such thing as face value. Trouble is, it spreads to all your judgments. You do not know when to give trust or withhold it.” In fact, Words is far more trusting of others than they are of him, and wrongly imagines that his Machiavellian outlook offers personal and professional advantages.

In the broad sense, Words is a private-schooled, white-collar narcissist of a certain generation who is happy to get his soul but not his hands dirty. He believes that an elite education, his writerly talents, and a modest public profile grant him a higher position in the social hierarchy than those who work with their hands or teach, and he jealously guards that self-perception. “I have clout in this town,” he insists. “I’m not some shitkicker.” The world is there for him to conquer, through rhetoric and trickery, and people exist to be exploited.

Words is obsessed with status and shamelessly solicits tokens of praise and admiration from his family or colleagues. For him, “The definition of life is holding on to where you are in society. Hopefully getting ahead or not falling back too far. It’s having loved ones looking up to you, admiring how you’ve held your position.” The gap between this regressive understanding of the world and his actual capacity to thrive under those conditions is the source of much of the novel’s comedy: while Words insistently embraces the notion that social rules are subservient to the impulses of “nature, red in tooth and claw”, he isn’t equipped to prevail against genuine competitors. If he was once formidable, he is now afflicted by impotence and uncertainty.

Words wants nothing more than to be respected and feared, but his attempts to acquire esteem and wield power prove farcical. Imagine a dogged but mediocre Iago, or a Frankenstein-like assemblage of dysfunctional male impulses.

There is a strong hint, in the early sections of Off the Record, that Words might be in the process of critically reassessing his behaviour and worldview. He says of his wife: “She had her own job, a worthy job … Did I ever hero-worship her or give her fawning? I barely asked how her toiling was going.” But these self-interrogations fade away, which might leave some readers wondering exactly who the story is addressing, and why. If it isn’t a plea for readerly sympathy or understanding, and if Words’s calamitous account is unlikely to attract the kind of admiration or awe that he yearns for, what is its purpose, and who is it aimed at?

Throughout the novel, Words talks to himself (and occasionally yells) in front of the mirror, while eating or walking the streets, when alone in his office or driving. “My bantering habit,” he says, “was enough to make any onlooker think he’s mad. I was animated in my discussions. I pointed at myself, slapped my palms together in recrimination.” It is possible, then, that Words addresses his story to the one person who truly matters by his standards: himself. If so, Sherborne has conjured an ingenious form of past tense narration that is perfectly suited to his protagonist’s nature.

Off the Record is ambiguous, funny, and refreshingly unwise.

Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a freelance writer and critic from Adelaide.

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