October 2021

by Helen Elliott

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser
Two satirical stories about fitting in, from the two-time Miles Franklin–winner

Scary Monsters (Allen and Unwin) has one title but it is two novellas jammed together. One concerns Lili, a young Australian teaching in Paris in 1981. The other is narrated by a man called Lyle, the setting is Melbourne and the time is, uh, now. The stories are self-contained, although they reflect the author’s precise anxieties. They are different gears.

What a writer de Kretser is. Her opening to “Lili” – “That was the year we went to Sardinia to meet John Berger’s mistress” – is worthy of Camus (“Mother died yesterday”). Whoosh. Off we go into some extraordinary world, remote from the one we inhabit daily. John Berger? He wasn’t dead then. Paris 40 years ago is as remote as Camus’s Algeria.

Lili is young, alone, friendless. She is perfecting her French by teaching in a school program that fosters foreign students. Things look up when she befriends Minna and Nick. The couple have advantages in life that give them a poise Lili will never have. They have money behind them and both are physically attractive. They are also British. In 1981, when “entitlement” had yet to be dissected, the word for entitlement was “advantages”. Lili is brainy, her French is dazzlingly better than her friends’, but she has no added “advantages”. Nothing is exactly defined about Lili except that she has an Armenian great-grandmother. She looks different, at least from the entitled. In the French parks the lonely North African men assume she is one of them. And, in her loneliness, she is. In her outsider status, she is. But she has absorbed her Simone de Beauvoir and imagines being a new Beauvoir, bold, intelligent and independent.

De Kretser gets the pace of these young people at the fag end of ’70s self-obsession, their throwaway clothes and throwaway lives – lives of others, not theirs. In the beautiful city of beautiful lights – a running joke – Lili’s life is the opposite to Beauvoir’s. It is wretched, mean, sordid, and she’s right to leap at every shadow. Books absorbed with a particular eagerness to believe in their specialised, aka entitled, truth are dangerous if a heroine doesn’t have the entitlements to make them possible. And cannot discern a monster from a shadow.

“Lyle” opens with all the bravado of “Lili”: “Lately I’ve been thinking about the day Alan died.” Seconds later it turns out that Alan was a dog and it was decided to put him down. Well, Chantal decided it. Lyle’s wife is a woman who is indeed bold, intelligent, independent. Lyle has given over everything to Chantal, including his individuality and sense of responsibility. She manages their world in her pursuit of a life that enables her to imagine she is one of them: Australian. Chantal and Lyle migrated from some never-named Asian state when they were young and had different names. Clever, driven, highly educated and, in Lyle’s case, sensitive, they have spent their lives getting on – meaning simply, being a slave to one’s less-smart manager. In Lyle’s case, this is anguishing. Chantal has every moment accounted for, fitting in exercise as miniature as face yoga. She is damned scary. A monster? Maybe.

Ivy, Lyle’s unconventional mother, has been living with them for a decade or so. She is an old-fashioned woman, a woman who married a man who loved her and who was rich enough to maintain her until her death. She has a small nest egg and, while Lyle, who dotes on his mother, never thinks about this, the nest egg is bright in Chantal’s mind. When Ivy starts to become frail, Chantal suggests it might be time, while she is still of sound mind, to consider consenting to a “Joyful Occasion”. Lyle is horrified. But whatever Chantal wants… as with Alan, the dog. You remember.

Is it deliberate that there is no emotional platform to engage the reader in either story? Thoughtful, satirical entertainment is on offer here. “Lyle” should be made for a new episode of Black Mirror and de Kretser should write it.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of The Monthly, October 2021
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In This Issue

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