August 2022

Noted

‘Losing Face’

By Bri Lee
Cover of ‘Losing Face’
George Haddad’s latest novel surveys the confronting world of male interiority

Both Elaine and her grandson, Joey, are lying to themselves. Elaine’s pokie addiction is one thing; she performs a delusional bargaining routine while feeding every cent of her pension into the machines each week. Joey’s numbers come up much faster and wreak more devastation; he is hanging out with mates and not-quite-mates, taking drugs, and they rape a young woman.

In alternating chapters Elaine is mostly able to keep her problems a secret where they live in Western Sydney. Meanwhile, Joey is arrested and his name and image are on the news. There’s a lot of “media stuff” about the “guys being Middle Eastern”, and Joey hides in his room smoking cigarettes awaiting trial.

Haddad is not kind to his characters. Joey, in particular, is such a shithead that Elaine does not automatically presume he is innocent when she hears about the allegations. But while it is true that all rapists are shitheads, Joey is asking himself if being a shithead really makes him a rapist-by-association. There are the legal arguments, which the narrative of the novel surges towards, but the moral and ethical questions are far more interesting.

Among the recent wave of novels that try to grapple with the politics of gender and power, we have plenty of traumatised women. It’s comparatively rare in contemporary fiction to get a protagonist who did the bad thing. We don’t have nearly as much access to men’s interiority in this arena. Joey believes his part in the crime wasn’t as bad as others. What’s often excruciating for a post-MeToo reader is to try to divine whether or not the author believes in outdated ideas or if it’s just the characters who do. Losing Face walks this very old tightrope: what is the difference between re-presenting the problem and actually critiquing the problem?

In this instance, the honesty of the portrait makes a compelling case for the latter. Haddad states in his own author bio that his work “explores masculinities”. In an interview at the State Library of New South Wales he said he knew these boys. The leader of the group, Boxer, was a composite of the worst ones Haddad had met. Joey genuinely isn’t “as bad” as Boxer, no, but is the bar truly that low? While we have been hearing for years how women feel when they are raped, what we often wonder is what the hell the men were thinking – were they thinking at all?

For the weeks after the incident, it would have been a bolder authorial choice to go further into Joey’s mind, fully immersing the reader in a first-person telling. The close third allows for some ricocheting away from uncomfortable moral quandaries and back into action. It is made gradually, increasingly clear to us how Elaine justifies her vice. We almost get there with Joey.

Stylistically, the writing is simple. Haddad’s choice not to italicise non-English words gives the work a bilingual lyricism. Generally speaking, when a person who only reads English sees a wall of non-English text in italics, the eye will skip to the end of the visual block, then resume actual reading. The impact of dialogue, in particular needing to be followed phonetically, creates for a significantly more immersive and alive reading experience: “Elaine! Walih, come over. The raqua is on the stove.” Haddad doesn’t pander to non-Arabic readers. It’s refreshing. Dialogue overall in the book is a strength. There’s a banter between Joey and his mum that rings true. The stilted chats between Joey and Elaine have both intergenerational warmth and awkwardness.

Joey’s chapters may be the more narratively explosive ones, and much of the coverage of this work will be about him, but Elaine’s chapters are often more profound. Her life story unfolds gradually: her childhood in a village, an arranged marriage bringing her to Australia, the working and motherhood that followed. Now, in her old age, she lives alone and wonders how men are still getting away with the same bullshit behaviour. Elaine is looking at herself in a mirror by the end of this book. Joey is not.

Bri Lee

Bri Lee is an award-winning author, freelance writer and legal academic. Her books are Eggshell SkullBeauty and Who Gets to be Smart.

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