July 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Trivial pursuit

By Craig Sherborne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

You miss out on medicine by five points and so you dedicate your life to trivia. Don't get eccentric on us, with your pointy bald head and smart-arse grin - we don't like those sorts of antics, mister. This is Melbourne, Australia, not England. But you, Neven Solian, do it anyway, making a career in the pubs of the city. Not in a performance-poetry way, screaming out anguish from fretted notebooks at open-mic nights in some Collingwood dive. That's where the other eccentrics are, having given up on getting respect, sniggered at as weird and wild, but so fiercely proud.

When you read, it's private cramming of thick-book facts, day and night, from your walls of encyclopaedias. Writing down every conceivable quiz question in piled wads of paper gone brown from sunlight and hand-smear. Paper that squats on your sofa, inhabits your corners and floors, like children waiting to be called upon for an answer. Life is a casting off, said Willy Loman's wife, and she was right, or else you live and die in the clutter of your own self. But your life, Neven, is a filling-up: on what films Jack Nicholson won Oscars for; or who was the Irish-born son of a British military officer who grew up in New Zealand with the given names Nigel John Dermot; or in what year did they start building the Great Wall of China. Knowing the intimate details of 9000 celebrities can't be good for your soul. Who would have thought there were that many celebrities, anyway?

You don't drink but you spend your evenings in pubs, not for the chicken parma or the elbow-nudge banter, but to play trivia. The other players do it for fun. Fun's what you're supposed to have when there's no war or famine or pestilence to bother with, no spiritual salvation to aim for. Those Country Road types you play against have already got salvation, and got it by age 40: it's called a six-figure salary and a log-cabin weekender at Merricks Beach. Got it just by knowing what swaps and put options and shadow shares are. But for all their knowing and their acquiring of wealth and status, they can't beat you, Neven. They never have.

They've been complaining about you for years. "We come here after a hard week's work and we don't get a look-in because of that smug bastard!" The MC can slap a 15-point handicap on you, but you still win. The publican wants you banned. He stumped up a $350 jackpot, and he might as well just have given you the cash in advance. He's got patrons swearing they'll never frequent his establishment again. They whine that they don't mind losing - but with Neven around there's no sniff of winning. By 2003 you are 43 and have been blacklisted by 26 hotels. Gambling exploits mediocrity; blackjack players with the kind of memory that photographs the cards dealt and calculates the odds of winning are banned from casinos. Trivia isn't gambling, but you've suffered the same fate. You're not resentful, even though it's like restraint of trade (it is how you make your living, after all).

With five more points you could have eliminated diseases, rid humanity of its vast helix of physiological wrongs. You could have had a doctors-only space in the hospital car park and a drawer full of bow ties. You could have put that legendary patronising manner of yours to scalpelling use on the wards: "You have psoriasis, madam, which is spelt with a silent ‘p'." Instead, your calling became the petty pursuit of quizzes and trivia, an inane branch of esotericism. And where has it got you? It got you on TV: Sale of the Century, where you could have gone all the way - the cash, the car, the lot. But at the stage when you could take the car and quit, short of the cash, that's exactly what you did. As if you imposed upon yourself another five-point miss, just for the pleasure of being a puzzle. Just so you'd know there were viewers agape. Just so any other quiz masters watching would clap a palm to their forehead, groaning. They might be clever, they might have a brain full of facts, but they're just quiz masters. You are different, known on the pub-trivia circuit as "an eccentric genius", a creature no one can understand.

Not to be understood is to achieve apartness from the world; people look askance at you, a little afeared, a little awed. From this position you can imagine yourself a superior being. This is your prize. Because it's not about money, is it, Neven? Your memory is your muscle. All the tiny bits of the planet's information are contained in it. What useless power! And yet power all the same, like a walking itinerary of all that the world has done, its dates, its places, its dross. If the world died tomorrow, you could write its obituary.

You won $150,000 on Quiz Master, and $32,000 on Millionaire. You ring up radio quiz shows but win too often there as well. You try to disguise yourself by pretending to be a woman. You give wrong answers so that you don't win, hoping you will be allowed to call in again. But presenters tire of you, and you're banned. Never mind. Pub trivia is where you can display your apartness, work on it, hone it. You write the answers on the slips of paper provided and then read a book or do a crossword, a display of disdain for competitors who crane and whisper to compare and argue answers with each other. But with blacklisting, that pleasure is denied you.

Now you are 48. Your name is not in the phone book, nor on the electoral roll. But you're still out there. Craig Woolridge, a trivia-event manager, has seen you play those quiz machines they have nowadays in pokie venues. You push a button, answer a question, and on it goes until you reach the jackpot: $80 or so. (You make good money, he says, until bosses wise up and move you on.) You have a daughter, who must be in her teens by now. Perhaps you are training her to be a quiz champion like you, your legacy those paper piles, the cracked-spined encyclopaedias. May her memory serve her well. May she get the five points to do whatever she wants to do.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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